Interview: Down’s syndrome and The Abortion Act 1967

Ninety per cent of women who learn their unborn baby has Down’s syndrome choose to terminate the pregnancy. Termination for a pregnancy that detects Down’s syndrome is, by law, legal until the point of birth. In a landmark case, campaigners are calling on the law to change.

Aidan

Medical termination of pregnancy is allowed under The Abortion Act 1967 for three factors. One such factor states: “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.”

Down’s syndrome constitutes as a reason for abortion under The Abortion Act 1967, and abortion is legal up to the point of birth.

Two women, supported by charities and campaigners, are taking the UK Government to court in a bid to change an outdated and discriminatory law. The trial at the High Court is set to take place on 6 and 7 July 2021.

DISCRIMINATION

“I believe that the current law is downright discrimination,” emphasises Heidi Crowter, who has Down’s syndrome. “It doesn’t really reflect 2021. The current law can protect an unborn baby after 24-weeks, but it wouldn’t protect me.”

The law states that termination of a pregnancy can be carried out before 24-weeks of pregnancy. However, for expectant parents who have had Down’s syndrome or another disability detected, termination can be advised up to birth.

For Máire Lea-Wilson, she was asked if she would like a termination three times; the first time Máire was asked about termination she was 34-weeks pregnant.

“At 34-weeks pregnant, it is a really shocking thing to get asked,” Máire says.

“I asked if this was legal, and the response was that most people would terminate the pregnancy but most people don’t find out as late as I did. You get asked a question like that at 34-weeks pregnant, and it makes you think this is really bad and that our lives are over, or else, why would we be offered this?”

Mother to two boys, Tom and Aidan, who has Down’s syndrome, Máire was shocked at the differences surrounding her pregnancies.

Máire and Aidan

“When I was pregnant with Tom, everyone was so happy for me. When I was pregnant with Aidan everyone was so sad for me. I have these two children and to me they are both equally valued and wonderful, bringing their own things to the table and I just cannot understand why we have this law that doesn’t give Aidan the same value and dignity as his big brother,” Máire emphasises.

VALUE

And Heidi agrees: “The current law actually makes me feel that I don’t have the same value as anyone else and I am not accepted for who I am. I wish people would realise that people with Down’s syndrome, we are the same as any human being.”

The current law highlights the historical discrimination people with Down’s syndrome have faced in the past, and it is evident that more needs to be done to change the conversation. Lynn Murray, part of the organisation Don’t Screen Us Out, is working to change information provided at Down’s syndrome testing to ensure people with Down’s syndrome are not screened out.

“Some people think if you have Down’s syndrome then you cannot communicate, or do anything,” explains Lynn. “Historically, children with learning disabilities were placed in institutions, died young, were not allowed to thrive and were never understood. We didn’t have them in a community to learn what made them tick and learn their superpowers.

“But sometimes it feels like you are being choked by the weeds of the past that you cannot shake off.”

Lynn and daughter Rachel

When Lynn learned that her daughter, Rachel, had Down’s syndrome the family took their time to adapt to the news and were, thankfully, directed to Down’s Syndrome Scotland. However, other parents are not as fortunate.

“Honestly, I knew very little about Down’s syndrome; I was absolutely petrified,” Máire shares.

“I was getting negative medical messaging about Aidan’s quality of life. I now know about Down’s syndrome, and it’s not the very dire picture that was painted.”

Involved with NHS Scotland as they roll out new screening tests, Lynn is advocating for more positive information to be made available to expectant parents rather than negative language currently surrounding Down’s syndrome, which includes the promotion of termination from medical professionals.

Lynn adds: “In the maternity waiting rooms, there should be pictures and videos of babies and people with Down’s syndrome so that expectant parents can start to formulate questions in their own head before any screening conversations.”

Alongside updated advice, the current campaign has highlighted the injustices faced by the disabled community that is written into law. After learning that 90 per cent of unborn babies with Down’s syndrome detected are aborted, Heidi, alongside her mother Liz Crowter, started their journey to changing the law.

REFLECTED

“People don’t see the baby, they just see a problem,” Heidi adds passionately. “I want everyone to meet someone with Down’s syndrome so that people can see the person behind the extra chromosome.”

Taking the UK Government to the High Court at the start of July, Heidi and Máire will argue that the current law is unequal and that people with Down’s syndrome, and other disabilities, can have successful, happy lives.

And Heidi is a shining example of this, with her own job and recently married to her husband James, who also has Down’s syndrome.

“I don’t view this as a case about abortion, it is a case of equality,” Máire adds.

“I feel like the tide is turning and people are realising that this is not a choice aspect, it is equality and how people with disabilities are viewed. If we really do proclaim that as a society people are all equal regardless of background, our laws should reflect that.”

Further advice is available from Don’t Screen Us Out, the Down’s Syndrome Association, and Positive About Down Syndrome. To learn more about positive language visit Language Creates Reality.