The current law permits an abortion to take place up to birth (40 weeks) if prenatal tests indicate that the child may be disabled when born. There is a legal limit of 24 weeks for abortions on other grounds.
Abortions are currently permitted at any time up to and including birth if there is a ‘substantial risk’
that the child might be born ‘seriously handicapped’
. The law does not define these criteria and they are broadly interpreted
This ground for abortion is known as Ground E in practice and, according to Department of Health statistics, 2,307 ‘Ground E’ abortions were carried out in 2011.
The Equality Act 2010 protects disabled people from discrimination. The Act prohibits discrimination arising from a disability by preventing one person from treating another less favourably because of their disability.
The current abortion law thereby discriminates against disabled babies in two ways.
First, it has a different upper limit for disabled babies and babies without disability (40 and 24 weeks respectively). Second, it allows for some disabled babies to be aborted under ground E (those who will be born with a ‘serious’ handicap) but not others.
Last Monday we heard evidence at the inquiry from disability rights activists, parents of children born with disabilities and support groups for affected families.
There were several strong themes that emerged.
First, there seemed to be very little support or information available for families who wanted to keep their babies, as opposed to having them aborted.
Second, there was a strong presumption from doctors that parents with disabled children would choose to have them aborted.
Third, there was a huge amount of subtle or direct pressure placed on parents who decided not to abort. They were repeatedly asked to reconsider their decisions and treated like pariahs – in short they were discriminated against.
It is just this sort of pressure that has led some commentators to talk about abortion for disability as a ‘coercive offer’. And there is a growing literature of personal testimonies around this issue.
‘Defiant Birth’ tells the personal stories of women who have resisted ‘medical eugenics’ and dared to challenge the utilitarian medical model/mindset – women who were told they shouldn’t have babies because of perceived disability in themselves, or shouldn’t have babies because of some imperfection in the child.