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