Lawyers acting for the families of two children with Down’s Syndrome have written to health secretary Matt Hancock seeking a change to the 1967 Abortion Act to prevent termination after 24 weeks for all non-fatal disabilities, including Down’s syndrome. In 2018, nearly one in five abortions were due to congenital anomalies.
Liz Crowter – whose 24-year-old daughter has Down’s syndrome but also works and is looking forward to getting married this summer – said: “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 the mum’s arms.”
The families are being backed by the campaign group Don’t Screen Us Out and the actress Sally Phillips, whose son Olly has the condition. “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,” she said.
For the first step before seeking judicial review, the families have asked to amend the Act so that abortions for non-fatal disabilities are outlawed in the third trimester, which starts at 28 weeks of pregnancy. There are about 200,000 abortions a year in England and Wales. In 2018, nine in 10 were performed before 13 weeks. Abortions can be carried out after 24 weeks if the mother’s life is at risk or if the child would be born with a severe disability; there were 289 of these in 2018.
Cheryl Bilsborrow, 46, is the mother of two-year-old Hector, who is on the books of a child modelling agency and loves music. “The nurse reminded me I could have a termination right up to 40 weeks if the baby had Down’s,” she recalled. “I just said to her: ‘I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,’ but it did make me feel very anxious.”
In the UK, around 750 babies a year are born with Down’s. They have an extra copy of a chromosome, leading to developmental difficulties, while some are prone to complex health conditions. Testing takes place after 12 weeks of pregnancy when women are told how likely they are to have a child with Down’s. Nine in 10 families told a child has Down’s end the pregnancy.
Paul Conrathe, of SinclairsLaw, the firm acting for the families, said: “This case addresses a matter that is fundamentally discriminatory – that unborn babies with a disability, and in the case Down’s syndrome, should be aborted up to birth. the current law attributes lesser value…to people with disability.”