It has become a familiar scene. Two parents, expecting a child, go for a scan. They imagine that the doctor or nurse will be on their side; but they receive another kind of response, as it’s quietly but firmly hinted that they might like to book an abortion. Often – though not always – this is because the child has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome.
This is what happened to Cheryl Bilsborrow, who told the Sunday Times that she was pressured to have an abortion just days before she gave birth. “The nurse reminded me I could have a termination right up to 40 weeks if the baby had Down’s. I just said to her, ‘I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,’ but it did make me feel very anxious.”
Her son Hector is now age two. According to the Sunday Times, he “loves music, is on the books of a modelling agency and has been described as “the cutest boy in the universe’.”
But Down syndrome is often treated as an immediate cause for booking an abortion. In 2018, 618 terminations were carried out for Down syndrome, compared with 750 children who were born with the syndrome. To parents like Bilsborrow, the current law – which permits late-term abortions in cases of disability – is deeply alarming.
Of course, to Catholics there cannot be any justification for an abortion. But you don’t have to be a believer to be disturbed by the legal distinction between the disabled and able-bodied.
So it’s a very welcome sign that Bilsborrow and another mother, Liz Crowter, are seeking a change in the law, and have written to the Health Secretary Matt Hancock asking him to consider it. As Crowter has pointed out, “It’s ridiculous: five minutes before the baby comes down the birth canal, if the child is suspected to have Down’s, the baby could be aborted. Five minutes later and the baby would be in Mum’s arms.”
They are also planning to seek a judicial review of the law, which they say discriminates against the disabled. Paul Conrathe, the lawyer acting for Bilsborrow and Crowter, observes that the current situation is “fundamentally discriminatory.” At the moment, Britain effectively “attributes lesser value . . . to people with disability.”
That should seem a very straightforward point, but those who raise it can expect strong opposition. The Labour leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey, who says she is wholly committed to “reproductive rights”, got into trouble merely for saying that the framework appeared to discriminate against the disabled. There is a fear, within Britain’s abortion lobby, that if any new restrictions on abortion can be justified, then even more ethical questions might be raised.
The Department of Health has given a cagey response, saying: “Abortion is a matter of conscience, and it is right parliament decided on a free vote when abortions can be performed under the 1967 Abortion Act.” But that will not be their last word on the subject, since the campaign has momentum. It is being supported by the actor Sally Phillips, who says: “Given advances in medical care and quality of life for people with Down’s syndrome, the different right to life is beginning to look not just dated but barbaric.”
That, of course, is another crucial point. Our current abortion laws date from a very different era, with crueller attitudes towards those with disabilities. It is more than 50 years since the Abortion Act, and its effects have received little scrutiny. Yet in that time more than 9 million unborn lives have been taken. Instead of looking again at the situation, Westminster seems determined to use the 1967 law as a model for Northern Ireland.
The current situation is indefensible, but it will continue as long as silence surrounds it. That is why the campaign by Bilsborrow, Crowter and Phillips is so heartening. They will receive much unjust criticism. But that is only because their opponents realise, at some level, that Britain’s abortion laws are neither coherent nor morally justifiable.