Today the House of Lords has been considering a huge question: whether Britain can continue to tolerate a major form of discrimination against disabled people. The occasion is the Second Reading of Lord Shinkwin’s Private Member’s Bill, the Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill. If the Bill eventually passes into law, it will alter the 1967 Abortion Act, by removing foetal disability as a ground for legal abortion. Currently, disability-abortion is permitted right up to the moment of birth. For foetuses without disabilities, the limit is 24 weeks.
Those who make arguments against disability-based abortion are sometimes accused of “hijacking disability” as a “strategy”. So it is particularly compelling to see that Lord Shinkwin is himself disabled: he is simply arguing that people like him should be treated with equality.
Nonetheless, arguments against disability-based abortion are often met the same kneejerk reaction: any change in the law is said to “threaten women’s reproductive rights”. Yet even those not opposed to abortion in general realise that aborting disabled foetuses presents them with a difficulty.
Ann Furedi, head of the abortion provider BPAS, was once rebuked by “no-platformers”‘ for even agreeing to debate the subject. The no-platforming protesters told her that “abortion for disability makes the pro-choice side seem eugenic and it’s hard to argue that it’s not the same as discrimination against people with disabilities”.
Many people do quite plainly see that allowing the termination of disabled foetuses is discrimination against disabled people. It allows people, through their choice to terminate, to say to disabled people, I prefer that people like you don’t come into this world.
Of course, the choice to terminate can have altruistic motivations: some women choose termination with the sincere aim of sparing their child the suffering they believe disability will cause. But if such children had been given a chance to be born, they might actually find their life to be a gift so clearly worthwhile that they would not trade it even to stop any suffering. Even those children who die too early to make this judgement, but are unconditionally cherished while they live, can have clearly worthwhile lives in others’ eyes.
Disability-based abortion is a divisive issue because it seems to throw into conflict two principles that are often taken to be non-negotiable: women’s rights to self-determination, including over their own bodies, and non-discrimination, or equality. But suppose homosexuality were genetically detectable by pre-natal testing, as gender is already detectable: surely we would all react with horror if a new law was introduced to enshrine homosexuality or gender as a specific ground for legal abortion. Why should disability discrimination be seen as any more tolerable?
The apparent conflict of rights in disability-based abortions disappears if we see that no one has a right to threaten the equality of a particular group in society. Considering how much modern British society has fought for equal rights after birth regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, or disability, we undermine this struggle if we do not affirm absolutely that those same people have the right to come into this world.
But our society now cares about the disabled only conditionally. It tells them their lives are worth living and their rights worth fighting for — conditionally on their being born. Unconditional affirmation of the value of their lives is therefore necessary, and this cannot be achieved without changing the law on disability-based abortions.
People sometimes object that outlawing disability-based abortions is not the solution; instead, we should work on “changing attitudes” towards disabled people. But the same people never argue that, say, discrimination from employers should not be illegal, but should instead be combatted by “changing attitudes”. Laws foster attitudes, and the abortion provision for disabled foetuses attacks a fundamental right of the disabled – the right to life.
Lord Shinkwin’s bill comes as people with Down’s syndrome are raising concerns about new screening techniques. It is time we listened to disabled people about matters of screening and abortion that so greatly affect their place in society. When a severely disabled member of the House of Lords says that “to eradicate disability itself through termination” is not the same as “to eradicate disability discrimination”, but in fact its opposite, we should pay attention.
Michael Wee is the Education Officer of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre