The Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill intends to remove the opportunity for abortion on the grounds of foetal abnormality, without a time limit. Genetic Alliance UK briefed members of the House of Lords to oppose this Private Members' Bill, as abortion on the grounds of foetal abnormality, without a time limit, is necessary and valuable to the patients and families supported by our membership.
Abortion on the grounds of foetal abnormality is an important component of the options available to a woman who discovers that she has a pregnancy affected by a serious genetic condition. If enacted, the Bill would force a race against time for women and couples, raising the stakes in an already traumatic situation. Genetic Alliance UK opposed this Bill to preserve a reproductive choice option.
Below is a summary of the debate held on Friday 21 October 2016 at the second reading in the Lords Chamber.
He references Section 1(1) of the Abortion Act 1967, which gives disability as one of the grounds for abortion: ‘if two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith ... that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped’. His Bill intends to remove the opportunity for abortion on these grounds.
His perspective stems from the fact that his condition might have led to an abortion, when in fact his condition has not prevented him from leading a successful life.
He is clear that he is against abortion as reproductive choice: ‘It is hardly a secret that I oppose not just the time limits in our current legislation but the provisions that have led to 8 million nascent lives being prematurely ended in the United Kingdom.’
The decision to terminate a pregnancy early in the pregnancy is difficult in any circumstance, but even more so when the foetus has been shown to have a severe disability. Many of these conditions which cause severe disabilities cannot be diagnosed until later in the pregnancy: because of this, the diagnosis cannot be confirmed, and the decision cannot be made before 24 weeks.
There are more factors to consider in evaluating a decision to abort than whether a woman wants a ‘perfect baby’: effect on the woman and her ability to cope, ability and tolerance of the partner and family to cope in the future, potential impact on existing children in the family.
The decision to terminate a pregnancy if the mother feels she is either unable or unwilling to nurture her child must be respected.
‘There is no contradiction between campaigning for the rights of disabled people alongside the right of a woman to choose what she does with her own body’
‘A pregnant woman should not be used as a campaign tool for the rights of disabled people’
She notes that the law should remain as it is for the time being.
Access to transport, buildings, facilities or the availability of aids or support required, or the social and psychological barriers—in the minds of others—in terms of expectation or discrimination, and the lack of adequate resources to meet their additional needs.
Like Baroness Tonge, Baroness Hayter queries the progressiveness of a Bill which would in effect force 200 to 300 women a year to carry to full term a much-wanted and planned child, while knowing that it might be still-born, live only for a very brief period, and/or suffer much pain and illness.
To counter the point about support for Lord Shinkwin’s Bill made by Viscount Bridgeman, she says that The British Medical Association, as well as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, and the British Maternal and Fetal Medicine Society all oppose the Bill.
She also quoted from Genetic Alliance UK’s briefing:
“abortion on grounds of foetal abnormality is an important component of the options available to a woman who discovers that she has a pregnancy affected by a serious genetic condition”
and in so doing introduces further valid arguments as to the specific nature of genetic conditions: They often come with no advance warning, they are likely to be discovered only during pregnancy, these conditions are frequently serious enough to cause stillbirth or severe, eventually lethal, neonatal illness.
‘These are voices we should heed… as they come from people who, day by day, deal with the women and children who would be affected by the Bill. In addition, I am sure that they deal with situations which I am certain the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, never meant to cover but which would be caught by his Bill. We welcome the attention the noble Lord draws through the Bill to the continuing discrimination disabled people face, but this is not the way to improve their lives.’
Time is key: Regardless of how an abnormality is detected or suspected, a woman has to be given time to understand the nature and severity of the condition so that they are able to reach an informed decision about how to proceed and whether to continue with the pregnancy or seek a termination.
Case-by-case: These issues are extremely difficult to conceive of in a general way - the seriousness of a foetal abnormality should be considered on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all available clinical information.