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Abortion and disability
  Misleading claims from anti-abortion
Update and comment by Ellie Lee

This week, anti-abortion campaigners made a misleading claim of a ‘major victory’ in their campaign against legal abortion. The organisation Life contended that a statement from the Disability Rights Commission constituted a turning point, in favour of the anti-abortion case. Professor Jack Scarisbrick, chairman of Life, said: ‘I regard this as a considerable victory for us after a long battle’. ‘Originally the Commission said the Abortion Act was outside its remit. We want to see that section of the Act deleted and eugenic abortion made unlawful’.

These comments were made following the issuing of a statement about abortion by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC). The Commission, which was set up last year to advise the Government on how to combat discrimination against the disabled, issued a statement about clause (d) of the 1967 Abortion Act, as amended, which deals with abortion for fetal abnormality. This clause states that abortion is legally permissible if two doctors agree there is ‘substantial risk’ of ‘serious abnormality’ in the fetus. In this clause, as where continuation of a pregnancy poses a threat to the mother’s life, no time limit for abortion is specified. Under other clauses of the Act, abortion is not permitted after 24 weeks, although normally it is carried out much earlier.

Of this clause in the Abortion Act, the Disability Rights Commission said: ‘The Section is offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability and there is substantial support for the view that to permit terminations at any point during a pregnancy on the ground of risk of disability, while time limits apply to other grounds set out in the Abortion Act, is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally.’ ‘In common with a wide range of disability and other organisations, the DRC believes the context in which parents choose whether to have a child should be one in which disability and non-disability are valued equally’.

This argument, which follows the case made over recent years by disability rights campaign groups, undoubtedly constitutes a criticism of the particular clause in the Abortion Act that deals with abortion for fetal abnormality. However, it is important to be clear that the case being made is not that abortion per se is a problem, or even, as anti-abortion campaigners have claimed, that abortion where the child may be born disabled, should be outlawed. Indeed the DRC has made it clear that it was not opposed to abortion and is not pressing for any part of the Act to be repealed. A spokeswoman for the organisation has said: ‘The DRC has been going for just one year, and we have a vast task of tackling discrimination in society. The Abortion Act is not going to become our major priority. Our major priority is ensuring that women receive unbiased advice.’

Indeed, the concerns of the DRC could be resolved if abortion law were liberalized – that is, if in all circumstances, the time limit on abortion were abolished. It seems that Life have opportunistically jumped on the case made by the DRC, to promote an argument that is their argument, not that of disability rights organisations.

The DRC has made a clear proposal as to the approach it advocates. It has said that medical professionals and others should ensure that parents receive balanced information and guidance on disability. In this vein, some disability rights organisations have argued that those with experience of disability should be involved in drafting the text of information given to pregnant women and their partners, who are undergoing ante-natal tests.

For those who are not in the minority who oppose abortion in principle, but who do have interest in debate about abortion law and policy, this issue is in fact the one that should be of interest. Are disability rights groups correct when they claim that women do not freely choose to terminate affected pregnancies? Are women given inadequate advice and information? Are women coerced, overtly or covertly, into screening ante-natally, and abortion?

For those who are interested in these issues, a forthcoming publication from Hodder & Stoughton, edited by Ellie Lee of Pro-Choice Forum, entitled ‘Designer Babies: Where Should We Draw The Line?’ may be of interest. It includes essays from ethicist John Harris, Veronica English and Ann Sommerville of the BMA, Juliet Tizzard of Progress, disability rights activist Agnes Fletcher and pro-life campaigner, Josephine Quintavalle. Further details will be distributed via this mailing at the time of publication. More discussion of ante-natal screening and abortion for fetal abnormality can be found on the PCF website, www.prochoiceforum.org.uk, under ‘Resources’.

John von Radowitz, ‘Pro-Life Campaigners Claim Abortion Law Victory’. PA News, 22/08/01
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