“Not only children but adolescents and adults with Down’s syndrome live valued and valuable lives, contributing greatly to the welfare of those around them. All of this is undermined by the continued existence on our statute book of a law that, in effect, states that Down’s syndrome is a ground for abortion.” – Bishop of Bristol, 21/10/16
On the 21st October 2016 Conservative Peer Lord Shinkwin led a debate on the Second Reading of his Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill. The Bishop of Bristol, Rt Revd Mike Hill, spoke in support of the Bill.
The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for introducing this Bill. I understand that its focus is the principle of disability equality, not some underhand attempt to limit women’s access to abortion services. Noble Lords will, of course, have a variety of opinions on the ethics of abortion, but that is not, in principle, the focus of the Bill. It needs to be said that, in general, historically and indeed today, churches and other faith groups have always maintained a cautious approach to how the rights of women and the rights of the unborn child can somehow be maintained without, we hope, falling in to those who reside at the extremes of arguments around ethics on both sides of this debate.
Our debate today is effectively restricted to whether we ought to remove from the 1967 legislation one ground for permitting abortions to take place—specifically, 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”.
Given the nature of the remaining grounds for abortion, it is unlikely—as the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, has implied—that if this Bill were to become law, the numbers of terminations of pregnancy would significantly decrease. The Department of Health, in its commentary on 2015 abortion statistics, implied that unquantified, but notable, numbers of abortions where foetal abnormalities were present were conducted on other grounds, most probably that of injury to the mental health of the pregnant woman. It is reasonable, therefore, to conjecture that if Section 1(1)(d) were to be removed from the Act, many such pregnancies could and would still be terminated under other existing provisions. That might be a matter for either reassurance or regret for noble Lords, but that particular discussion lies beyond our remit.
Why then do we seek to amend the Abortion Act? The answer is that the principle of disability equality is essential. It is essential for the welfare of individuals living with disability and it is equally essential for a society that wishes not only to protect but to celebrate the lives of those with disabilities. Many of us looked at our television screens just days ago and saw the joy of the crowd and of athletes, both able and disabled, in celebration of their achievements. There is something profoundly worrying in our current contradictory stance, which says that people living with disability are valued, respected and cherished, but that disability, in and of itself, represents a valid ground for abortion. In the end, there is a world of difference between an abortion taking place because a diagnosis of foetal disability adversely affects the mental health of a pregnant woman, and stating that foetal disability is, in and of itself, a ground for abortion.
As other noble Lords have mentioned, by way of example I should like to pursue one pertinent area further—that of the Down’s syndrome community. That there are challenges to be met in caring for a child with Down’s syndrome is undeniable. Without in any way seeking to minimise the impact of a diagnosis for Down’s syndrome on parents, my experience as a father of five is that there are challenges in caring for all children. However, neither would I want to minimise the joy that many parents receive from sharing their lives with Down’s syndrome children. The recent TV programme made by Sally Phillips made that point very clearly. For those noble Lords who are, like me, addicts of the TED talks, there is a very compelling talk on that website by a young disability rights campaigner, Karen Gaffney, who has Down’s syndrome. She is an Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer and has swum 16 times across San Francisco Bay—a feat which, I gather, none of the inhabitants of Alcatraz successfully managed.
Not only children but adolescents and adults with Down’s syndrome live valued and valuable lives, contributing greatly to the welfare of those around them. All of this is undermined by the continued existence on our statute book of a law that, in effect, states that Down’s syndrome is a ground for abortion. The current debate with regard to non-invasive prenatal testing, recently the subject of a consultation by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, brings a new urgency to this issue. NIPT screens for genetic conditions such as Down’s syndrome can now be carried out by means of a simple blood test from the 10th week of pregnancy. This procedure is more accurate than the previously available early screening tests and does not carry the risk of miscarriage because of its invasive nature. If, either through the NHS or commercial companies, it becomes routine for pregnant women to undergo this form of screening, it could have extreme consequences, not only for the numbers of Down’s syndrome children to be born but for society’s attitudes, not just to those who are born with Down’s syndrome but to disabled people in general.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, on bringing this issue to the attention of the House and I hope that, regardless of our no doubt diverse views on the ethics of abortion, we can unite to give the Bill a Second Reading in the interests of disability equality.
Lord Shinkwin [extract]: I thank the right reverend Prelate for his supportive remarks. I emphasise, with him, that this is not about the ethics of abortion. Indeed, it is perfectly true that it would be unlikely that the number of abortions would markedly decrease. But, as he rightly said, the principle of disability equality is essential if society wants to celebrate people with disabilities, as they did so recently in Trafalgar Square….
My noble friend the Minister restated the Government’s position, which I respectfully hope will change. I have to say that I am serving notice on Her Majesty’s Government that, should they proceed to introduce the new non-invasive prenatal test without the Health Secretary having met with me and with people with Down’s syndrome, their families and representatives to discuss their grave concerns—a meeting I requested as long ago as 8 March this year—I will be very seriously concerned. I urge my Government and my party not to disown their own Disability Discrimination Act and their commitment to ensuring that disabled people are heard on all the critical issues that affect them, which is consistent with the spirit of that Act.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.