- or a reasonable choice?
By Ann Furedi
Britain's most influential anti-choice group, Life,
is having a rare celebratory moment, after successfully
extracting a condemnation of the Abortion Act from the Disability
Rights Commission (DRC).
Life had asked the commission for its view on Section 1(1)(d)
of the Act. This is the clause that permits abortion without
time limit when there is substantial risk of a serious fetal
abnormality. In 1999 (the most recent year for which figures
are available), 1702 abortions in England and Wales were
carried out solely for this reason, 114 of them after 24
Following a consultation (that involved disability organisations,
but not abortion providers), the DRC concluded that Section
1(1)(d) was not, as Life had claimed, inconsistent with
the Disability Discrimination Act, 'since the latter is
concerned with the rights of living persons'. So far so
good. Unfortunately, the DRC went on to give this official
'However, 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
This is an interesting perspective - and it indicates that
the DRC may well find itself with a difficult dilemma. Throughout
its programme of work on ethical issues the DRC is supposed
to be guided by two principles: 'valuing disability and
non-disability equally, and the right of individuals to
make informed autonomous choices.' In this particular instance,
it is arguable that these two principles are mutually exclusive.
If we are to allow individuals (living persons) the right
to make 'informed autonomous choices', we need to accept
their right to 'value disability and non-disability' differently
because, if we are honest, most of us do. We would rather
be able to hear than be deaf; we would rather be able to
see than be blind.
I find it difficult to believe that the actor Christopher
Reeve, for example, values his condition as a paraplegic
as much as he values his former ability to ride horses and
act in Superman films. This is not to say that he
values himself as a person less, or that he values his life
less. It simply means that most people in these circumstances
would surely choose to return to health if they could.
Which of us could honestly say that, when we are planning
a child, we are indifferent as to whether or not it is healthy?
We value health above ill-health. This does not mean that
we accord less value to blind, deaf, paraplegic or ill people.
Most people who approve of women's decisions to end abnormal
pregnancies would be horrified if anybody suggested that
people's lives be ended because of their disabled condition.
Life has been smart to focus on the issue of abortion for
fetal abnormality. These campaigners have clearly lost their
argument that abortion per se is a problem: society broadly
accepts abortion as a possible solution to an unwanted pregnancy.
But once the issue of fetal disability is raised, it seems
to complicate things.
Many pro-choice activists who defend women's right to end
accidental unwanted pregnancies gag when asked if a woman
should be able to terminate a pregnancy, not because she
does not wish to have a child, but because she does not
want to have a disabled child. Indeed, even many
of those who lobby for abortion on request in early pregnancy
see late abortion for fetal disability as a form of discrimination
against disabled people - 'disability cleansing'.
This makes it a perfect issue for the anti-abortion lobby
to take up. There is little ground for them to gain arguing
against early abortion, which is acceptable to the overwhelming
majority of people - but when they take the argument into
territory of late abortion, they find even pro-choice activists
prepared to make concessions.
Abortion on the grounds of fetal disability smacks of a
number of things that many liberals find unacceptable. It
is judgemental and value-laden because, in opting to end
the pregnancy, the woman says that while she was prepared
to raise an able child she is not prepared to raise a disabled
one. In opting to abort an abnormal fetus a woman is clearly
saying that although she wanted a child, she does not want
one on the terms that nature has offered. There are many
who find it difficult to accept that some women should take
control of their own destiny in this way.
Yet that women should have this kind of control over their
destiny is exactly how it should be. It is the woman, after
all, who has to take responsibility for the child after
it has been born, and so only she is in a position to determine
whether or not she is able or prepared to take the strain
involved in rearing a severely disabled child. That the
overwhelming majority of women who discover they are carrying
a fetus affected by Down's Syndrome currently choose to
have an abortion is not surprising.
When a woman decides to have a child, she has an image of
what motherhood will be like and what her child will be
like. A severely disabled child is not usually what she
anticipated or wanted. Access to antenatal testing and the
option of abortion allows a woman to make an informed decision
about the future of her pregnancy - and about her own future.
Unfortunately, many of these tests can only be carried out
when the pregnancy is fairly advanced.
Why should a woman in this situation be denied the option
of ending the pregnancy in abortion? Nobody, at least in
the UK, argues that women who wish to have disabled children
should be forcibly aborted. The argument centres on whether
a woman should be allowed to decide whether to continue
a pregnancy that she now finds unacceptable.
Some disability rights activists argue that women's choice
should be denied because the acceptance of abortion for
fetal disability has a corrosive effect on society. They
argue that termination for fetal disability is a slippery
slope to euthanasia for the living disabled, and that by
condoning abortion on these grounds society condones discrimination
against disabled people.
But this inexorable logic rests on the assumption that we
are incapable of differentiating between our actions in
respect of potential people and people themselves. After
all, those who believe that abortion is a legitimate end
to unwanted pregnancy do not accept infanticide as a way
of dealing with unwanted babies or murder as a way of disposing
of an unwanted partner.
Those who oppose abortion for fetal abnormality have been
allowed to assume the moral high ground in the discussion.
It is assumed that in an ideal world no woman would want
to abort an abnormal fetus - we would accept the diversity
they bring. Even many of those who accept abortion on grounds
of disability often concede a moral superiority to those
who accept the birth of a child with Down's Syndrome or
spina bifida with the same joy as a 'normal' baby. Abortion
is accepted as an appropriate option for those who are 'unable
to meet the challenge of disability' or accept their special
Yet why should those who opt for abortion be made to feel
that their decision is a symptom of their weakness and lack
of moral fibre? Abortion of a previously wanted pregnancy
on grounds of abnormality can be a difficult and brave decision.
Many women opting to terminate pregnancies in these circumstances
might have found it easier to let nature take its course,
but cannot bear to bring a child into a life of pain. Others
may be concerned about how such a birth will impact upon
their obligations to existing family. Others may feel that
they can make a more worthwhile contribution to society
without the greater commitment to a child that lifelong
disability would imply.
Those who argue that the current abortion law is riddled
with eugenic assumptions undeniably have a point, but not
for the reasons they suggest. The law was constructed on
the assumption that abortion should be available for circumstances
when doctors believe that a woman's capacity for good motherhood
is undermined by her health or her circumstances, or that
it would be better for society if her child were not born.
But the solution is the liberalisation of the law to allow
women more control, not the opposite.
The current abortion law is not the kind of law that women
need. We need access to abortion on request - for whatever
reason we think is appropriate. If the DRC wants to make
a sensible suggestion about the 'discriminatory' time limit
that applies to Section 1(1)(d) it could usefully suggest
that the limit be removed for all other grounds, too.
But until we have won such a law it is important to defend
the access to abortion that current legislation gives us
- including access to late abortion for fetal disability
- and to celebrate rather than condemn the use of medical
technology that allows women the chance to make a choice.
Ann Furedi is director of communications for British
Pregnancy Advisory Service. She writes here in a personal
This article currently appears on the website http://www.spiked-online.com
and is circulated here with the author's permission.