The House of Lords will debate abortion on grounds of disability, after the Conservative peer Lord Shinkwin introduced a bill on the subject.
Lord Shinkwin’s Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill was drawn 12th in the private members’ ballot, and was given its first reading on Wednesday. Introducing the bill, Lord Shinkwin said: “Discrimination on the grounds of disability after birth is outlawed. Yet today legal and lethal discrimination on the grounds of disability is allowed up to birth by law.”
The 1967 Abortion Act made abortion legal at any stage, if two doctors give the opinion that “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”.
Lord Shinkwin’s bill proposes to strike that condition from abortion law, so that abortion law would no longer make any reference to disability.
Last year, 3,213 unborn children were aborted under the disability clause in England and Wales, according to NHS statistics. Congenital malformations accounted for 1,450 of these; 689 were because of Down’s syndrome.
In his speech, Lord Shinkwin referred to the Conservatives’ “one-nation” ambition, saying: “For me, a one-nation society is one that does not discriminate on account of disability – a society in which disability equality is a consistent reality.”
He said that the current law did not live up to this aspiration. “It is illegal for an unborn human being to have their life ended by abortion beyond 24 weeks, but if they have a disability their life can be ended right up to birth by law. Where is the consistency, the justice or the equality in that?
“If anyone thinks such obvious discrimination is acceptable, I respectfully invite them to imagine the outcry if the same were applied to skin colour or sexual orientation. Such discrimination would rightly be regarded as outrageous.”
Lord Shinkwin said that the House of Lords had an admirable record on disability equality and would be “equal to the noble task of righting this wrong”.
It is unusual for a private member’s bill to become law unless it gains support from a major party.
Lord Shinkwin’s bill follows a 2013 parliamentary report into disability equality, which concluded that the law needed a full review.
Earlier this month, the Prime Minister expressed concern about a new screening technique which could increase the number of unborn children aborted because of a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome.
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