Disability rights campaigner Heidi Crowter has launched legal proceedings against the UK Government to correct “discrimination” in UK abortion laws. The 26-year-old, who has Down’s Syndrome, argues that current legislation directly discriminates against people like her by permitting abortion up to birth if a baby is thought to have a disability. Of the law, Heidi says it sends a message that her life “isn’t as valuable as others”.
The outcome of this case will be massive for the disabled community, many of whom feel they are being unfairly singled out. It isn’t just preborn babies with Down’s Syndrome who are affected. The current law is interpreted widely to allow abortion in cases involving entirely treatable conditions like club foot, and cleft lip. A win for Heidi and her legal team would also see the value of children with these conditions affirmed.
In a societal context where attitudes towards disability are improving, and where we are making positive, forward steps towards equality and inclusion, the nature of UK abortion legislation seems entirely regressive. This is certainly how it is seen by the international community. The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has consistently criticised countries that provide for abortion based on disability.
A 2017 report by the Committee attacked the UK over its abortion law: “The Committee is concerned about perceptions in society that stigmatize persons with disabilities as living a life of less value than that of others and about the termination of pregnancy at any stage on the basis of fetal impairment.”
Polling of the UK public also shows that the majority of people in England, Wales and Scotland feel disability should not be a ground for abortion at all. In light of all this, the UK Government’s refusal to act is hard to understand.
What Heidi and her team are calling for seems entirely right, whatever our views are on abortion itself. Why should abortion be legal up to the very moment of birth simply because a child has some form of disability? Would we enshrine the right to abortion up to the birth on the grounds of gender? Or race? That would sexist, or racist. Allowing it on the basis of disability is ablist. It should have no place in our society.
It’s possible, of course, that Heidi will lose her case. But whilst this would be a real roadblock in England and Wales, it wouldn’t preclude the Scottish Parliament from forging a different path. As abortion is a devolved matter, Holyrood could abolish the arbitrary rule for disabled preborn babies and bring Scots law in keeping with international standards.
In the last Parliament, MSPs voted unanimously to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law, sending a strong message that the welfare of children is important to Scotland. They now have a chance to send a message that preborn babies should not face discrimination in the womb. I sincerely that hope they will.
This article was first published in The Herald on 16 July 2021.