Abortion on the grounds of disability is not ‘discrimination’

A legal challenge by disability-rights campaigners could seriously limit women’s freedom of choice.

Ella Whelan

Heidi Crowter, a young woman with Down’s syndrome, is taking the government to court in an attempt to limit access to abortion in cases of fetal disability. Crowter, alongside Cheryl Bilsborrow, whose son Hector has Down’s syndrome, has now raised over £20,000 with the help of supporters.

Current UK law under the 1967 Abortion Act does not, strictly speaking, legalise abortion. Instead, it creates a legal loophole to allow doctors to perform abortions in pregnancies up to 24 weeks, if the woman proves that her mental or physical health will be impaired by taking the pregnancy to term. In cases of Down’s syndrome – or other ‘fetal abnormalities’ or ‘serious handicap’, as the Act puts it – women are allowed to terminate their pregnancies beyond the normal 24-week time limit. For Crowter and her supporters, this is ‘downright discrimination’; they believe the government is ‘singling out disabled babies’.

But it is wrong to make a comparison between a person living with disability and a fetus that has been found to have an ‘abnormality’. Thanks to the efforts of campaigners and individuals, stigma around Down’s syndrome and other disabilities has significantly decreased over the years, though there is certainly more that can be done. Every decent person would defend the rights of disabled people to be treated as equal citizens. But a fetus in the womb is not comparable to a living individual.

It is also unfair to say that women who choose to terminate their pregnancies in cases of fetal abnormalities or disability are being discriminatory against the wider disabled community. In an interview with Channel 5 News, Crowter argued that the fact that fetuses with Down’s syndrome could be aborted beyond 24 weeks was ‘deeply offensive’. ‘It makes me really upset and cry. Because it reminds me that no one loves me’, she said. The inference here is that women who choose to have abortions on the grounds of disability are evil and cruel. But as Crowter’s mother pointed out in the same interview, having a child with Down’s syndrome can be both a joy and a challenge. What this campaign fails to acknowledge is that all kinds of considerations come into play when women are deciding whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. It can often be a question of maintaining a way of life or access to resources. Making women feel guilty for an already difficult decision is wrong.

Crowter’s campaign is attempting to turn a political and moral debate about freedom of choice into a legal battle over diversity and rights. Crowter’s campaign says that the ‘UK has a legal duty to ensure equality and protect people with disabilities’, and it uses this as the basis for a legal case of discrimination. This is an attempt to use the feelings of offence by one individual to limit access to services needed by millions of women. It is an attack on women’s freedom disguised in the language of identity politics and ‘raising awareness’ about disabilities. Crowter and Bilsborrow both make compelling arguments for why having a child with Down’s syndrome is just as joyful and valuable as having any other kind of child. But to limit women’s ability to make free choices for fear of offending the disabled community is an oppression of women’s rights.

Crowter and Bilsborrow are not the first to raise this issue. In 2016, the actress Sally Phillips produced a BBC documentary featuring her son, Olly, who has Down’s syndrome. The film asked whether the introduction of non-invasive pregnancy testing for disabilities in pregnancy would lead to the kind of ‘discrimination’ Crowter’s campaign is now arguing against. Phillips argued that women should be prevented from finding out whether their pregnancy screened positive for conditions like Down’s syndrome in order to stop women from having abortions on that basis.

Phillips used the same guilt-trip methods as Crowter’s campaign. She visited a woman who had had an abortion because of Down’s syndrome and asked her if she thought Down’s syndrome children who were alive should still be alive. Phillips later spoke emotively to camera about how the woman ‘had not wanted a child like mine’. Many women watching that programme who had made the difficult and often painful choice to terminate a pregnancy in similar circumstances would have felt demonised. As medical science progresses, and options open up in all areas of women’s personal lives, we should be arguing for greater choice and greater freedom, not for keeping women in the dark about their pregnancies.

There is a solution to help Crowter, Bilsborrow, Phillips and everyone involved in this campaign feel better about abortion: decriminalise it completely. If we removed all restrictions on abortion – allowing women to make choices about their bodies free from legal restraints, threats of criminalisation or stern words from doctors or campaigners – there would be no grounds for treating pregnancies differently.

Crowter’s campaign is right about one thing – the distinction between the normal 24-week limit and so-called late-term abortions is wrong. The vast majority of women who fall pregnant and do not want to continue that journey will choose to have an abortion in the early stages of their pregnancy. Those who, for one reason or another, decide to terminate later in their pregnancy should not have to reveal their reasoning to anyone – it should be a decision made between the woman and her doctor. It doesn’t matter if a woman’s choice about her own body makes us cry, feel offended or unloved. Our opinions do not matter – a woman’s body is her own.

If disability-rights campaigners truly believe there should be no discrimination in choices about pregnancies, they should get behind the campaign to decriminalise abortion in full, and fight for the right of women to be trusted to make their own decisions about their own bodies.

Ella Whelan is a spiked columnist and the author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.

Picture by: Getty.

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Jack Klunder

30th March 2020 at 7:33 pm

I read this article stupefied. An example of twisted logic, double-think, and dodging spelling out the implications of the pro-choice assumptions and slogans. It’s not discriminatory to deliberately end someone’s life on grounds of their disability? The obvious question is – what about aborting a baby girl because she is a girl? Would the author protest it as discriminatory? And that form of violence against females (purely because they are females) have taken by far the greatest number of lives in history (tens of millions of missing girls in countries like China and India, and it would be naive to think it doesn’t happen in the UK). Would the author believe that the best response to it would be to ‘trust the women to make the right choice’? What if their choice was to abort the girl because she is a girl?
By no means do I believe that the response to the abortion is demonising and condemning the women who had an abortion. But other than in the minds of some pro-choicers, pregnancies don’t happen in a societal vacuum, and neither does the child-rearing. For millennia, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles were have been involved in the business of creating an environment for the child to grow. Even women who raise their children without their partner or family rely on schools, nurseries, or even overall societal goodwill towards children. Women who abort baby girls because of preference for boys, the expense of the dowry, or perhaps to spare them the hardships they endured themselves as women, are aborted in the context of a misogynistic society. Disabled babies are aborted in the context of a society which sees the disabled with barely disguised fear and loathing, where they can expect an uphill struggle from the start. Rather than kill the babies which have undesirable characteristics, and help women to get rid of their children so they can continue with their lives, should we not change to accept, welcome and adapt to all children and pregnant and nursing mothers, rather than expect them to fit in?
In justifying the agenda of ‘doing whatever we want with our bodies’, the baby becomes not only non-human, but practically irrelevant. “A fetus does not have rights as a living individual”. A fetus or an embryo is a living individual, as from the day one (fertilisation) it satisfies the criteria for being a living being such goal-directed growth, metabolism, unique genetic structure, non-identical with that of the mother. Each of us is genetically identical to the fertilised ovum that we started as – in fact, it had more genes than we do because of the process of DNA degeneration. If it’s not living, what is it? Dead? And it suddenly springs the life at some point of pregnancy? Or at birth? If it’s not individual, what is it? Undifferentiated organic matter? If someone is not convinced by it, look up any videos or pictures of prenatal development (www.ehd.org is great at that), and you’ll see that the claim that is not a living individual becomes only possible through willful ignorance and denial. Heart from week 3, followed in quick succession by liver, brain, lungs, eyes. You could literally look into the face of a 6 week old embryo, which withdraws its head if you pinch its face. And I’m not reinventing the wheel here. No woman wears a badge on the Tube saying ‘fetus on board – but as it’s not really human, it’s not a big deal if you punch me in the stomach and cause it to die, and why am I actually wearing it then?’. Cigarette packets warn of smoking damaging your ‘unborn baby’, as do NHS posters on drinking or taking certain medications. No couple would tell you excitedly about the scan of their inanimate, inhuman clump of cells. Our mother did not tell us ‘when I was pregnant with a clump of cells which became you at some arbitrary point’, but ‘when I was pregnant with you’. All of that is obviously recognized in relation to the wanted children. It’s so obviously human that that abortion providers and advocates such as Ann Furedi (BPAS CEO), Peter Singer (philosopher) or Faye Wattleton (former president of Planned Parenthood) or Naomi Wolf all recognize it (https://abort73.com/abortion/medical_testimony/ – selection of quotes). But unwanted children, whether on the grounds of their ‘bad timing’, disruption to parents’ lives, having too many siblings, being female or disabled, become literally unhuman in our minds.
If it is human, then it deserves to be afforded the same care, compassion and rights as is afforded to any born human being. If you need to satisfy some arbitrary criteria to deserve being regarded as a human (the list goes on: age, level of development, dependency, sentience, being in the uterine environment, self-awareness, being able to make decisions), you’ll find a good number of born humans (such as smaller children, people who are asleep or in a coma, on life support, with dementia or learning disabilities, people who are intoxicated) permanently or temporarily excluded from humanity. And you could ask – why this criterion and not another? If the right is acquired at some age – depending on legislation of your country, 12 weeks, 14 weeks, 24 weeks as it is in the UK, birth – you could ask – why at that point? Why not a day earlier or a day later? Why is it OK to kill a disabled baby up in the womb up to birth but not a few hours later when it’s out of womb? Why do we nurture prematurely born babies but kill babies in the womb of precisely the same age? The reason that care and rights should be extended to everyone from conception, is simple: that’s when the biological life begins and no other distinction makes sense.
But if it’s not human then and if it’s not alive, why the big deal about ‘trusting the women to make this difficult decision’? What makes it difficult? The author doesn’t spell it out. If it’s an inanimate non-person, what’s the big deal? Should be no different to removing an appendix or a tooth. But if it’s difficult, maybe because it’s the difference between the life and death for someone else.
If the right to bodily autonomy trumps all the others, why should it finish at birth? Woman’s bodily autonomy continues to be restricted after birth, as she e.g. gets up at night to the crying child, or when she is told not to smoke, take certain medication or recreational drugs while breastfeeding? In extreme cases, taking drugs during pregnancy and breastfeeding, which makes it sick and drug-addicted, makes you likely to have Children’s Services on your case. The laws against assault, rape, public urination and defecation obviously restrict my bodily autonomy. Would I be applauded by the author for any of the above? Would she be fighting hard for my right to do whatever I please with my body? Why not?
I will finish on a personal note. While my mum was pregnant with my sister, she contracted rubella, and she was under barrage of nagging and pressure from healthcare professionals to abort her on the grounds of disability. She was even told off on two occasions for not ‘terminating the pregnancy’ in front of my now born sister who was old enough to understand it! Thanks to the determination and courage of my mum and dad, my sister was born. She is disabled, perhaps more mildly than the worst-case scenario. But she has lived and by doing so, enormously enriched lives of everyone in my family. She has lived in spite of the many who wanted her erased form existence. Now her body is the place of nurturing a baby (likely a girl, by now about 20 cm long) as she nears the point of giving birth.

Nick` Podmore

11th March 2020 at 12:13 pm

ABORTION; the ultimate abrogation of personal responsibility. Bypass abstinence, the pill, the patch, the condom, the femdom, the morning after pill and leap straight to eviscerating living breathing sentient fetuses with hooks. I fully support abortion under certain special limited circumstances (rape, medical or legal prescription) but “eugenics” or the failure to take personal responsibility for your life, your body and your actions are not valid reasons.

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