Lord Shinkwin’s Bill to end disability-selective abortion up-to-birth passes Committee Stage

A Bill introduced by a severely disabled Peer to end disability-selective abortion has received its Committee Stage in the House of Lords, with near unanimous support from Peers.

Lord Shinkwin’s Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill will now proceed to Report Stage (date to be confirmed).

An amendment to the Bill requiring that, should the Bill become law, the Secretary of State undertake a review of the impact of the Act on disabled children, their families and carers and the provision of support services, was tabled by Baroness Massey of Darwen. Lord Shinkwin accepted the amendment, emphasising that any review should not only involve disabled people but be led by them.

If successful, the Bill will remove section 1(1)(d) from the 1967 Abortion Act, which allows for abortion on the grounds of disability up-to-birth. In the UK, disability-selective abortions are currently available right up to the moment of birth whereas in most cases,  non-disabled babies cannot be aborted beyond 24 weeks.

The net effect of this Bill would be that the 24-week time limit would apply to all babies regardless of disability, as a woman would still be able to obtain an abortion on other grounds detailed in the 1967 Act.

Speaking at the debate, Lord Shinkwin, said:

“…I owe your Lordships’ House so much because of the impact of legislation that it has already passed. Without your Lordships’ House, a commitment to disability equality would never have been enshrined in law. Noble Lords will know that noble giants such as Jack Ashley and Alf Morris, with both of whom I had the privilege of working and whose spirits I invoke today, led the fight to outlaw disability discrimination. All my Bill does is to carry on their noble work, because it would allow us to outlaw disability discrimination where it begins—at source before birth. It is simply unfinished business. ”

“…I can see from the trends in abortion on grounds of disability that the writing is on the wall for people like me. People with congenital disabilities are facing extinction. If we were animals, perhaps we might qualify for protection as an endangered species. But we are only human beings with disabilities, so we do not.”

“Our Paralympians represented their country in Rio with pride. What was the essential qualification for them competing at Rio? It was their disability. The country which applauded their success is the same country whose law regards that essential qualification for going to Rio—disability—as a reason they should die. How is that fair, right or logical? It is none of those things, which is why today I reflect on the remarkable impact that laws passed by your Lordships’ House have had on my life as a disabled person. It is why I ask myself: how could I not have faith in our common humanity? How could I not have faith in the truth that there is more that unites than divides us? And how could I not believe that your Lordships’ House will be true to itself and continue its noble fight for disability equality by passing this Bill?”

  • Lord Shinkwin’s Bill is backed by the We’re All Equal campaign, which includes disabled people, their families and supporters. The group wants the Prime Minister to commit now to making time for the Bill to complete its Lords stages so it can be voted on by MPs in the Commons. They are encouraging people to visit their website to write to their MP. For more information on the We’re All Equal campaign and further facts, statistics and details on why there needs to be a change in the law visit www.allequal.org.uk
  • The Bill arrives at a time of intense media debate about the ethics of screening for disabilities following the Sally Phillips’s BBC documentary, A World Without Down’s Syndrome?
  • 2015 marked the highest year on record for disability selective-abortions, with 3,213 being carried out in England and Wales – representing a 68% increase in the last 10 years.
  • Disability-selective abortion numbers have seen a sharp increase in recent years. There were 230 late term disability-selective abortions (between 24 weeks and birth) in 2015 – a 271% increase since 1995. In 2014 the number of terminations for Down’s syndrome increased by more than 10% in the space of just 12 months as new screening techniques became available privately. Whilst abortions for cleft lip/palate, a minor facial impairment, have tripled in the last 5 years.
  • A 2014 Department of Health review identified that there is significant underreporting of disability-selective abortions and the numbers are likely to be much higher.
  • The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have also consistently criticised countries which provide for abortion in a way which distinguishes between foetuses on the basis of disability, most notably Austria, Hungary and Spain, citing Article 5 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
  • The Disability Rights Commission (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission) have said this aspect of the Abortion Act “is offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability…[and] is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally”.
  • The 2013 Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion for Disability found the vast majority of those who gave evidence believed allowing abortion up to birth on the grounds of disability is discriminatory, contrary to the spirit of the Equality Act 2010 and that it affects wider public attitudes towards discrimination. The Inquiry recommended Parliament reviews the question of allowing abortion on the grounds of disability and should consider repealing section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act which allows for it.
  • Lord Shinkwin’s speech in the chamber introducing the Bill is available here. Lord Shinkwin’s speech calling on the Government to support his Bill is available here.
  • An account of specific discriminatory language from the 1967 Hansard debate when MPs and peers introduced abortion for disability is available here.
Lord Shinkwin speech disability equality