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Ethics – Lord Shinkwin’s Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill

March 2017 | by Ros Bayes

Baron Shinkwin, a disabled member of the House of Lords, has introduced a private member’s bill, The Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill. This proposes that the time limit for abortion of foetuses, where there is a ‘substantial risk’ of ‘serious handicap’, should be brought into line with the time limit for non-disabled foetuses. 

The bill was first debated in the House of Lords on 25 May 2016 and was granted a second reading. This took place on 21 October 2016. It passed its second reading, and has moved to the report stage, before receiving its third reading in the House of Lords. If it passes its third reading, it will proceed to the House of Commons.

Current position

Christians would greatly welcome a world in which disability is not seen as a ground for abortion at any stage of pregnancy, but Lord Shinkwin is pragmatically limiting his bill to something likely to be passed in the Commons.

Currently, the law in Great Britain allows for abortion up to 24 weeks if there would be a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother or her existing children from having another baby.

It also allows for abortion at any stage of the pregnancy up to full term, if the mother’s life or health is seriously endangered or if there is a ‘substantial risk of serious handicap’ to the foetus.

The Department of Health reports that, in 2015 in England and Wales, 3,213 late term abortions were carried out for ‘serious handicap’. This represents 2 per cent of all abortions. However, it admits that there is under-reporting of such abortions and that the true figure is likely to be significantly higher. In Scotland in the same year, there were 186 late term abortions on this ground.

‘Seriously handicapped’

The law does not define the meaning of ‘seriously handicapped’. This is determined by clinical judgment and accepted practice. It would be very hard to prove that a defect did not constitute a ‘serious handicap’, as evidenced by the Joanna Jepson case in which a trainee vicar was granted permission for a judicial review concerning a case of late abortion of a foetus diagnosed with cleft lip and palate.

Joanna had herself survived many operations to correct a serious jaw deformity, and her brother has Down’s Syndrome, so she seems well qualified to comment on whether a relatively minor and surgically correctable malformation should be grounds for terminating the life of a potential child.

The case was referred to the Crown Prosecution Service who decided not to bring proceedings. From this it would seem that the disability rights movement’s mantra of ‘nothing about us without us’ is suspended when it comes to defining a ‘serious handicap’; and it is non-disabled members of the medical, legal and law enforcement professions who decide what constitutes a ‘handicap’ so serious that the unborn child would be better off dead, while the opinion of someone with living experience of a similar or more severe disability counts for nothing.

In 1990, suggestions that amendments to the Abortion Act would lead to terminations on the grounds of relatively minor conditions, such as cleft palate, were described by Sir David (now Lord) Steel as ‘a gross calumny on the medical profession’ and by other participants in the debate as ‘pure scaremongering’. But these remarks seem naïve, if not disingenuous, in the light of the fact that in 2015 there were 11 late term abortions for cleft lip and palate.

Proposals

Lord Shinkwin is not proposing that ‘serious handicap’ should be abolished as a ground for abortion, but that the same time limit should be imposed as for foetuses which do not have a disability.

He makes a number of points. The first is that legally his life could have been terminated at any point before birth, and yet, through the skill of his orthopaedic surgeon, he has been enabled to live a fulfilling and rewarding life.

Secondly, the law currently allows for a practice of eugenics equal to that of the Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s, and he cannot believe that this was the intention of the original members of the House of Lords who consented to its passage into law.

Under his proposal, if a woman believed a disabled child would have too great an impact on her mental health, she would still be allowed to abort up to the 24th week of pregnancy, just as she would with a non-disabled foetus. So this bill does not comment on a woman’s reproductive rights, but seeks to eliminate the injustice arising from disability discrimination.

Reasons

Over the past five years there has been a 56 per cent increase in terminations after 24 weeks on the grounds of ‘serious handicap’ (in the outdated terminology of the Act). Taken over the past 20 years the figure is a 271 per cent increase.

The law is being used, not just to eliminate people who are likely to have such serious defects as to cause a life of suffering, but people with minor and correctable imperfections.

Allowing abortion for one characteristic undermines the equality of all persons in society who have that characteristic. The countries where (whether legally or illegally) there is widespread practice of aborting female foetuses are the very societies where women are treated with contempt and where abuse against them is widespread.

By allowing abortion up to 40 weeks on the grounds of disability, we are enshrining contempt for the lives of disabled people into the laws of our land.

The mainstay of Lord Shinkwin’s argument is that, thanks to the UK Equality Act and European human rights legislation, the law no longer allows discrimination on the grounds of disability. Equality, however, implies equal opportunity at all stages of life, and to allow abortion up to full term purely on the grounds of disability establishes in law a pernicious and discriminatory threat to the lives of disabled people.

Objections

Most objections to Lord Shinkwin’s proposal have come from people who believe that a woman has an absolute right over her own reproductive choices and that no one has the right to interfere with that. This is, of course, a profoundly anti-biblical view, both of the status of the unborn and the role of a parent.

Another objection is that equality and disability legislation cover only the rights of living persons and that, under British law, a foetus has no legal status independent of its mother.

This is a very superficial reading of the law. A foetus does indeed have legal status and legal protection in respect of certain characteristics. An abortion cannot be performed on the grounds that the mother would be mentally distressed by having a baby of a particular gender, ethnicity, skin colour or sexual orientation. Disability is the only characteristic that trumps the foetus’s right to life, and is a particular target for discrimination.

Biblical response

The Bible is clear that all of us are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). God is not taken by surprise by a baby’s disability. He acknowledges himself as the creator of all, with and without disabilities (Exodus 4:10-11). He also declares his knowledge of, and concern for, the unborn (Job 31:13-15; Psalm 22:10; Psalm 139:13; Luke 1:15, 41, 44).

The Bible also leaves us in no doubt that disabled people can have a major role to play in God’s purposes. People with profound impairments and anxieties have featured among the champions of the Bible, including Gideon, the four lepers who saved the citizens of Samaria, Mephibosheth, Zacchaeus, and even the apostle Paul (probably, he had eye problems). All were part of God’s plans for his world.

The most important message we can give to disabled people is: God created you as part of the universe he desired; in what the world perceives as your weakness, he can make known his strength; in what the world perceives as your foolishness, he can make known his wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:27); the world perceives your disability as shame, but we, as God’s people, honour you (1 Corinthians 12:23); as the church, we need what God can supply through you (Ephesians 4:16); without you, God’s house is not full (Luke 14:23).

The bill commences the committee stage on 27 January 2017. I invite you to pray for its success at all stages of its journey through Parliament, and to encourage your own MP to support it, so that in future there will be no discrimination against the unborn on the basis of disability.      

Ros Bayes is training resources developer at Through the Roof

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