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Abortion and disability

1. Which reasons do you think are acceptable for abortion?


The survey had shown that the majority of students think that abortion should be legal, and many say they think the decision on abortion should be left to the mother. However, in our interviews, when reasons for abortion were specified some students indicated unease with particular reasons for abortion that a woman, or couple may have.

In particular there was a reaction against what some students felt were 'trivial' or 'selfish' reasons to have an abortion. One example of this was the negative reaction particularly amongst school students against women who would consider an abortion for purely financial reasons. Some students felt that women can get abortion too easily, suggesting it can be 'abused', and that women should think more carefully about their decisions. School students in particular felt that abortion is too easy and needs to be regulated in some way. As could perhaps be predicted, given their young age, they often talked about abortion as an experience that happens to other people, and in more abstract terms than the university students. The older students showed a greater awareness of problems and difficult situations that individual women face, and a greater number recognised that abortion is an important form of fertility regulation for women.

Where what was perceived to be a 'good reason' for abortion was indicated, for school students it was often posed in terms of the well being of the child, rather than as a decision that would help the mother. University students tended to be more concerned with the effect of pregnancy on the woman's life.

Many students, both school and university age, mentioned counselling as an important part of abortion decision making. For some, counselling was advocated to 'make the woman think' and to prevent 'rash decisions'. Others thought it good for the woman's well-being to talk her decision through, even if the 'counsellor' was a friend rather than a professional.


A girl, age 15 said:

"I think its wrong when there's a married couple and they both have jobs and they decide its just the wrong time to have a baby."

A girl, age 14 said:

" I think that people should bear in mind that there are hundreds of women who can't have children and then there are sixteen year old girls having abortions because they don't want to tell their parents. I wouldn't make a law to stop them doing it, but I would like to make them think more about other options like adoption."

A girl, age 15 said:

" There are so many people in children's homes, you have to ask what quality of life they have. If you're not in a position to put the time and effort in to give the child constant care you probably shouldn't have it."

"I think women should only have babies if they are prepared to look after them. Why bring someone into the world who's not going to have a good quality of life?"

"If the mother had to go to university she wouldn't be able to give the child much attention and that wouldn't be good for the child. I think it should be the woman's choice though."

"I think abortion is getting abused. Abortion was legalized recently in South Africa and in the first three months there were 13,000 legal abortions which just shows that women are abusing it. It would be far more sensible if they put more money into contraception before pregnancy and adoption after it."

"I don't believe in abortion as a form of contraception"

A girl, age 16, said:

"I think it's the woman's choice about abortion. If she's not happy you can't expect the child to be happy when it grows up."

A girl, age 15, said:

" Women need to think about their choices more. I think it would help if there was more counselling available."

A girl, age 15, said:

" Everything depends on your circumstances. No-one else can really tell you what to do. No-one asks to get pregnant by accident and often people will regret their actions. But its not always their fault."


A female student, age 19, said:

"I don't think that abortion should be used as a form of contraception, but I think it should be there for women to have control over their lives."

A female student, age 20, said:

"Abortion liberates women. No contraception is 100 per cent effective, so it's inevitable that it will fail sometimes. If I got pregnant before university I couldn't have coped."

"I feel that any interference with a woman's life whether it be work, studies or relationships are all valid reasons for a woman to have an abortion"

A male student, age 22, said:

"I don't think that women make their decisions lightly, but there is a risk that if abortion is available completely on demand and women don't even have to talk about their decisions then it could be used as a form of contraception. No woman should be refused an abortion, but if people are irresponsible they should receive some advice."

"I think that abortion counselling should always be offered, if not enforced. Most women will need to go through some form of counselling, even if that means with a close friend not a trained counsellor."

"It's hard for other people to judge another persons circumstances. People should have some form of counselling so that they know what they are doing and they don't just make a rash decision."

A female student, age 20 said:

"Motherhood, pregnancy and childbirth are such a big thing that you have to want to do it. You have to feel able to do it as well."

A female student, age 21, said:

"Society expects women to have children and women expect it of themselves as well. Having an abortion goes against society's expectations. Women who don't want to have children are seen as very masculine."

"If a woman really doesn't want a child it's not fair on either her or the baby to make her have it."



Many students raised concerns with fetal abnormality as a ground for abortion they felt comfortable justifying, whilst at the same time recognising the difficulties parents can experience in bringing up a child with disabilities. The welfare of the potential child was the primary concern when students talked about abortion for fetal abnormality: many students' criteria for acceptable grounds for termination depended on the quality of life for the potential child.

This meant that severe abnormalities which would result in pain or death for the child were seen as acceptable, although abortion in the case of what were called 'trivial' abnormalities was seen as a greater problem. This meant that what were seen as more cosmetic abnormalities were talked about as unacceptable grounds for termination. Abnormalities talked of in this way included, perhaps surprisingly, missing limbs and congenital blindness. Down's syndrome was not generally seen as an abnormality that justified abortion. Many students felt that Down's syndrome children could lead very happy lives.

Some students suggested that fewer women would opt for abortion for abnormality if they had more information. The perception here is that potential parents have a set idea of the child they want - what was characterised as wanting a 'normal' child - and that if they were more aware about what a particular abnormality entails, and were less 'prejudiced' about disability, they might think differently. This view was expressed amongst students who in general supported legal abortion. Their objection was not to women who want an abortion because they do not want to be pregnant, but where women make judgements about the kind of child they want: doing so was thought of as morally wrong.

When students identified particular reasons for caution about accepting abortion for abnormality without qualification, the idea that 'things could go to far' was the most frequent concern. The most clear expression of this concern was the idea there was a 'slippery slope', where acceptance of abortion for fetal abnormality could lead to policies based on eugenic selection before birth of 'desirable' and 'undesirable' people.


A girl, age 15 said:

"I think its difficult because you are deciding whether people should live or die, its like euthanasia."

"I think that women should only have an abortion if there is a serious risk to them or the child, not just if its something like Down's syndrome."

"I think its wrong if someone has an abortion just because they don't want a child with a disability when they are in a position to look after it. If they have an abortion just because they want a normal child I think that's wrong. It could easily go too far. It probably won't, but it could be like Hitler getting rid of all the Jews, and then we would be in a position when everyone wanted a normal baby."

"That's what worries me about abortion for fetal abnormality. You don't know how far it will go. Should you be allowed to have an abortion if it hasn't got a hand say?"

A girl, age 15 said:

"I don't think that a missing limb would be acceptable grounds for termination. It wouldn't harm the child's life that much"

A boy, age 16, said:

"I think it's difficult for people to be able to see into the future in 10 or 20 years time how things will work out. People often panic when faced with an unexpected situation, like having an abnormal baby and think how can I get out of this."

"There is a prejudice against some diseases and people don't realize that many conditions are not that awful and that kids could have a good life. I think the initial shock of discovering the baby is handicapped makes people think 'Oh my God I just want a normal healthy child' whereas perhaps if they were given more information about it they would think differently."

A girl, age 15 said:

"I think you should consider parents who have already had one disabled child and dedicated their lives to them. If the woman got pregnant again and found out the next child would also have an abnormality and then she wanted a termination its more understandable. You'd think well at least she's done the good thing once and she may not be able to dedicate the same amount of time to the next child."


A female student, age 20 said:

" I would abort if there was a very serious handicap or mental abnormality. But if it was a lesser abnormality I'd probably go ahead with the pregnancy. If the fetus was missing an arm for example it would be a problem but It wouldn't seriously damage their life. "

"Right now I have no problem with having an abortion for any disability that we can detect before birth. However, I am concerned that as technology develops and we can detect smaller abnormalities such as congenital blindness that things may go too far."

A female student, age 19 said:

"As long as a woman had thought through her decision carefully I think I would be happy with whatever she decided. Personally however I would feel uncomfortable about a woman having an abortion late in term for something like a missing limb. I think that is going too far. To me that is wrong, just as having an abortion because a baby has brown hair not blonde hair is wrong."



The consensus among both school and university students was that Down's syndrome children could lead happy lives. Few suggested that the woman should be prevented in law from having an abortion where Down's syndrome was detected in the fetus. It did seem to be the case however that abortion for Down's was not perceived as an option they were comfortable with. Many expressed this discomfort by suggesting that 'personally' they would not mind having a Down's child.

The distinction was often drawn between a situation where the child would be in pain during its life, and a child with Down's. In the former case, abortion was seen as the right course of action. In the later, few suggested that would see abortion as the course of action they would choose. This indicated, as we noted previously, that the quality of life for the child was perceived to be the key consideration. This was most overt in the definition by one school student of parenthood as a 'selfless act'. In this respect, since Down's was not thought to be a 'serious' abnormality, which would not greatly damage the child's quality of life, then abortion in this case was rarely advocated.

Few felt that if it was possible to eradicate the birth of children with Down's in the future it would be a good thing. In particular, university students expressed concern with society making negative judgements about those with Down's. Therefore women who opted for abortion where the fetus had Down's were seen by some students to be making a judgement about the child which was difficult to justify. Some suggested that deciding to opt for abortion in this case was no more legitimate than for a parent to make a judgement about what hair or eye colour they would prefer their child to have. In this sense, Down's syndrome was perceived as a characteristic, rather than a disability or medical problem. The notion that it is better not to have Down's that to have the syndrome was described by one student as a 'social construction', suggesting that in their view society has without justification portrayed the disorder as a problem for those who have it, which may not in fact be the case.


A girl, age 15 said:

"I think it's up to the mother to decide what is a serious abnormality. I would only have a termination personally if it was really serious though. Lots of people with disabilities have proved that they can have perfectly happy lives, although I know not everyone could cope."

" I think that Down's syndrome kids are just the sweetest kids. They are really lovely people."

A girl, age 16 said:

"There are lots of happy children with Down's Syndrome, and every year there are new cures and ways to make children's lives better."

"Many kids with Down's syndrome are great and they can have a perfectly good life. It's not like the child is in pain all the time. If the child was in pain I think the woman should have an abortion though."

"I know a couple of Down's Syndrome kids who have a great life, and they are lovely intelligent people. They do know what's going on around them. Things are harder for them, but they progress through that."

A girl, age 15 said:

"My mother had to have an abortion at 7 months, but it was really awful and the condition was very extreme. We all talked about it beforehand as she was older when she was pregnant an was warned about the risks and we knew that if it had been Down's she would have kept the baby."

"I don't think that abnormality would worry me on a personal level. I've got a second cousin who has an abnormality and he's really great, he's got Down's Syndrome, his parents dedicated their lives to him. I don't know whether I could do it, but I'd definitely consider it."

"In all cases I think the key consideration is the kid's quality of life. Being a parent is a selfless act."

University students

A female student, age 20 said:

"I know that having a Down's syndrome child would take far more care and attention, but they can lead quite happy lives. Personally my decision would be based on whether I could cope."

" I think it's a problem if people say I don't want to have a Down's syndrome child, purely on the basis of its disability. It would be like saying I want to have a blonde child or I want my child to be six feet tall."

A male student, age 20 said:

"Down's syndrome is extremely difficult. Its not a question of being able to say this child will be in pain its whole life. Many children who have Down's are very happy. I think the social construction of the disease has played a big part. I would have a problem if people wanted to eradicate Down's syndrome because you are judging people's lives and many Down's kids are probably far more happy than I am."

A female student, age 21 said:

"Down's children can have a very good life and they can be very happy children, people need to think about what they're doing."

4. Do you think that abortion for fetal abnormality should be limited in any way?


It was in answer to this question that the objections students had with the right to choose was most apparent. No student argued that the choice to abort for abnormality was a right that women should be free to exercise without question. Rather, they described various problems and difficulties that they thought would arise if this right was not limited. In so far as students made suggestions about how to generate such limits, education and changing society's attitudes about disability were seen to be positive measures, rather than enforcing a limit on choice through the law.

We suggest that these reservations about the right to choose reflect in the most part, students' views about society in general, rather than their opinions about abortion per se. The particular reservations students raised with the idea of accepting the legitimacy of abortion for abnormality were varied, but certain themes were recurrent.

The first observation we want to highlight is that the students were strongly anti-elitist. They believe that society should aim to be diverse: the more different kinds of people there are, the better. They suggested that it is wrong to perceive certain types of people as more desirable or better than others. Rather people should be encouraged to accept those who are different to them in a non-judgmental way.

Many students therefore wanted to encourage the idea that disabled people are not inferior to those without disability, but are equal to the able-bodied. This idea was sometimes expressed by calling disability a social construct, meaning that society has constructed the idea of the 'norm' of the white, able-bodied male, and measures other groups of people against this norm. In this sense disability could be talked about by the students we interviewed as a form of difference, akin to racial or gender differences, rather than as a medical problem of form of disease. Within this framework, abortion for abnormality was seen as problematic, because it would suggest that a judgment was being made about disabled people. It would encourage the idea that those with disabilities are lesser people than those without disabilities.

Some students took this idea further, and suggested not simply that disabled people were different to the able bodied, but that they could have more desirable attributes than those without disability. The sentiment expressed in relation to Down's syndrome noted previously was repeated, where some students thought that disabled people could be more loving and caring than the able bodied. These attributes were compared favourably with the desire to be involved in the 'rat race' and to compete for material wealth.

This sentiment is related to the second theme, which is a dislike of 'consumerism'. By this students meant the expectation that people can make choices and have whatever they want. The idea that people should expect to be able to choose everything in life, rather than take what they can get was seen as undesirable and damaging for society. In contrast, selflessness was seen as a better ethos.

A third theme was the identification of a society that legitimises the ability to make choices about the quality of a pregnancy as problematic on the grounds of 'where this would lead'. This concern relates to the points discussed earlier about the idea of the 'slippery slope' and fears about the social implications of the acceptance of abortion for abnormality. There was a concern with 'drawing the line' about which abnormalities could be accepted grounds for abortion. If this line was not drawn, it was thought that genetic selection with regard to a whole range of attributes, including sex, eye and hair colour and sexual orientation, might take place. This was discussed as a bad thing because it would allow for people's prejudices to be played out and would encourage the growth of different forms of discrimination.

Finally, fears about the implications of abortion for abnormality were also evident when students discussed genetic manipulation. Often students said they felt that scientific developments, particularly in genetics are 'going too far'. Many students said that being able to manipulate genetic conditions, even to eradicate disease, could cause problems as it was 'unnatural'. Preference was expressed for letting nature take its course, rather than attempting to change nature. The clearest expression of this came from one student who talked of the creation through genetics of 'half animals, half humans.'


A boy age 15 said:

"I think that altering genetic make up is wrong. It gets rid of originality, because then it's the parents idea of what makes perfection rather than natures."

A girl, age 15 said:

"I don't know why people think we should have the right to choose, it's the consumer idea that you can get exactly what want. Why should people be allowed to do that?"

"I don't think that parents should have the right to choose the sex of their baby or choose what its like. It's one of the last things that we don't have control over, and if we change that it will go against nature."

"I think people should be discouraged from wanting an ideal. I don't think that you should be able to abort a baby that's not damaged mentally, but is just disfigured physically."

"Cosmetic reasons for abortion probably shouldn't be allowed. They don't affect your health. Things are natural and you shouldn't intervene."

"I think its really scary that people want to change that children will look when they are born. It'd be horrible if everyone was the same".

A girl, age 15 said:

"I think a world of perfect people would be really awful, almost Extra Terrestrial."

"If a disabled child doesn't know any other way of existence they are unlikely to think oh my mum should have had an abortion. The child could be perfectly happy because they don't know any different. People always assume that the child will be really unhappy, just because they are not the same as us."

"The way that science is developing, and things are moving so quickly, cures could be developed within a child's lifetime. People should be made to consider that."

"The problem is that people will always go too far. If they choose one thing then they'll go on and want to choose eye colour and hair colour and everything. You don't know where it would end, they may create half animals, half humans."


A female student, age 20 said:

"I think that limiting what women could abort for would be impossible. It would be dodgy to ask the government to decide, but there is a moral duty to educate people."

"The danger becomes that choice can end up being unlimited. If people start picking and choosing and shaping the children that they produce it may create an imbalance in the population. Beyond very serious abnormalities it seems illegitimate to be able to choose certain traits. It would mean that people could act out their prejudices about what makes a good person such as white children or straight children. You can't say that being tall or intelligent will necessarily mean that you have a better life. It seems wrong that people could make such judgements about people."

A female student, age 21 said:

"Having an abortion for a trivial reason is extremely tricky. It stops being a question of rights and moves into the cosmetic realm. I would tend towards saying that trivial abnormalities could be seen more in the light of sex selection."

"I'm not happy with the idea of a law that could stop women. It would be impossible to enforce. Who would you punish? The doctor, the woman? It's a difficult area and not one I am convinced we should go down."

A male student, age 22 said:

"If it's a question of that the child would be in severe pain, I can understand abortion. If its something like a missing limb though then it has to be looked at in a larger context. The idea that someone could say that a baby would have no arm so therefore its sub human and I don't want it is terrible. If that is condoned then it suggests that people with these conditions shouldn't be alive."

A female student, age 20 said:

"In certain countries they kill girls not boys which everyone would see as wrong. I think we need to be careful."

"Disability is a socially constructed concept. Our concept of what is normal is a white able bodied person and that is ridiculous to uphold.

A female student, age 21 said:

"It has to be judged on the quality of life the child will have. If there was an abnormality which meant that people could live quite happily with the disease we shouldn't necessarily try to eradicate that from society. "

"It's such a difficult issue. We know that people who are blind for example often have many talents. That could be seen as a difference rather than a disability. I think you can only draw lines about what is acceptable in your own mind. It would be very difficult for a line to be imposed."

"In one sense you can say that disability is socially constructed as being in a wheel chair is only a problem because there are stairs and curbs."

A female student, age 20 said:

"There can be a conflict between disabled people and the right to choose. Disabled people would like to see themselves as normal people who can overcome their disabilities. Saying that it's ok to have an abortion for disability becomes an unfair act."

"The population should be as diverse as possible because you can learn a lot from disabled people. Disabled people make the most of what they have. They are probably more loving and understanding than people who are caught up in a rat race. They don't take things for granted."

"I would be against choosing the sex, or eye colour for example. A child is a natural process. Appearance doesn't make any difference to the quality of life of the child, it's very superficial. It would definitely be wrong if people could make those choices, it's taking it a step too far. We end up knowing too much. Anyone who wasn't perfect would be discriminated against and be a social outcast."

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