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ABORTION (DISABILITY EQUALITY) BILL debate summary

Last Reviewed 21/10/2016

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. 

Main arguments and points of interest

Those who support the Bill:

  • Lord Shinkwin’s (Con) main point, and reason for bringing this debate forward, is the idea that discrimination on the grounds of disability is enshrined in law and begins before birth.

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.

  • Lord Alton of Liverpool (Cross Bench) suggests that this section of the Abortion Act implies that unborn disabled babies are ‘significantly less valuable’ than those who are able bodied.  He also refers to the problem of pressure exerted on parents to terminate pregnancies if a child is likely to be disabled.

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.’

  • Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne (Con) notes that it is important to differentiate between diseases that, while they might once have been considered ‘impossible handicaps’ are now viewed as more liveable, and those which will never become liveable and will be a cause of ‘great suffering’ to infant and parent.
  • The Lord Bishop of Bristol: Argues that this Bill is crucial because if new non-intrusive testing were to become routine, it would significantly reduce the number of children born with Down’s syndrome.
  • Viscount Bridgeman (Con): Indicates that Lord Shinkwin’s goal of increased disability equality is shared by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Disability Rights Commission and the UK report on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Those who reject the Bill:

  • Baroness Tonge (Independent LD) a GP and family planning doctor with experience of many years advising and counselling women on abortion – gives the perspective of someone who has had to counsel on many different a diagnoses.

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.

  • Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab): Makes the point that despite the contribution of disabled people to national life, they nevertheless face huge hurdles in the way of a full and fulfilled life.

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.’

A point of information:

  • Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen (Con) notes that testing doesn’t remove choice. The introduction of non-invasive prenatal testing would not alter fundamentally the choices currently available to pregnant women who opt to take up the offer of screening. Women should be able to make informed decisions and access safe and appropriate tests. 

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.

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