Photo from Don’t Screen Us Out via Flickr.
Three people have begun a case before Britain’s High Court to challenge the law allowing the termination up to birth of a foetus with Down’s syndrome (also known as trisomy 21) – a person with an extra 21st chromosome.
The case has been taken by Heidi Crowter, a recently married 26-year-old woman with Down’s syndrome who lives in her own flat and is seeking national vocational qualifications, 33-year-old Máire Lea-Wilson and her young son Aidan, who is a Down’s syndrome child.
They are supported by the campaign group, Don’t Screen Us Out.
The case challenges Britain’s Abortion Act 1967, which sets a 24-week time limit for abortions unless 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”.
Speaking as the case began, Heidi Crowter said: “I find it extremely offensive that a law doesn’t respect my life, and I won’t stand for it. I want to change the law and I want to challenge people’s perception of Down’s syndrome.”
She said: “This law makes me feel I am better off dead. I know I’m not, but that’s how it makes me feel.
“There is no difference between me and someone who doesn’t have Down’s syndrome, like my nephew. Life is good for people like me and abortion law needs to show that. Everybody is equal, and doctors shouldn’t tell women that they will be sorry if their child is born. They should be supporting them.
“It makes me sad that this doesn’t happen. My family aren’t sorry I was born, my husband isn’t sorry I was born, and all my friends appreciate me too. We are happy with our lives.
“And my mum, who is also my agent, … realises she was wrong about me when I was born. She thought I wouldn’t get married and I did. A year ago. It’s my anniversary this week. James, my husband, has Down’s syndrome too. He supports me in this case.
“The judges need to know that we are not suffering and our parents and family don’t suffer. The doctors need to hear this, they need to hear from people like me and learn more about life with Down’s syndrome.
“My fight for justice and equality has brought us here today to change a law that makes me think I shouldn’t have been born.”
Máire Lea-Wilson said she was bringing the legal challenge because she wanted her Down’s syndrome son “to grow up knowing he’s not someone people have to cope with, he’s not a burden to society, he is a wonderful human being in his own right”.
She said: “I was 34 weeks pregnant when I discovered Aidan had Down’s syndrome and I was asked if I wanted to terminate the pregnancy in the context of a lot of medically biased information, and my own grief, three times.
“The last time I was asked to terminate the pregnancy was two days before he was born.”
Jason Coppal QC, the claimants’ barrister, told the High Court that the current law “stereotypes and demeans”.
He told Lord Justice Rabinder Singh and Mrs Justice Nathalie Lieven that claimant Máire Lea-Wilson “believes it is morally and ethically wrong to destroy a life on the grounds of a disability”.
He said that Heidi Crowter “has been the subject of abuse because of her disability and believes that the existence of a law allowing abortion up to birth for babies with DS [Down’s syndrome] is a contributory cultural cause of this type of abuse.”
Lawyers for the claimants said the abortion law is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and therefore unlawfully discriminates against Down’s syndrome people.
In 2020, there were 3,083 abortions on the basis of disability in England and Wales, 693 of them following a prenatal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome.
In Australia in 2016, it was reported that abortions after positive syndrome tests were estimated at between 80 to 90 per cent.
In a 2018 Adelaide Now article, “A nation without Down’s syndrome”, the chief executive of Down’s syndrome Australia, Ellen Skladzien, said: “What we have is doctors telling families their child will have a lifetime of suffering or they will never go to school, or it will be devastating for their marriage. We know all these things are untrue.”
Furthermore, in the 1970s the average life expectancy for someone with Downs syndrome was around 25. Now people are living into their 60s and 70s.
British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has incensed many by claim it is “immoral” to bring such children into the world if scientific advances offer choice. “Abort it and try again,” he told one woman struggling with the issue.
The High Court case challenges the heart of Britain’s abortion law, which removes all legal rights for a foetus in utero.
The case argues that a Down’s syndrome person should have legal protection in utero from intentional destruction and that failure to provide that protection amounts to discrimination on the grounds of disability.
The High Court is yet to make its ruling in the case.
Patrick J. Byrne is national president of the National Civic Council.