A remarkable vote took place in the Northern Ireland Assembly tonight – remarkable for all the wrong reasons. MLAs voted by a narrow majority, 45 to 43, to scrap legislation aimed at curbing disability discrimination in abortion law.
A bill originally brought forward by recently-appointed First Minister Paul Givan would have ended a rule allowing the abortion of preborn babies with disabilities right up to term. At present, babies with a “serious foetal abnormality” – interpreted to mean any disability from Down’s Syndrome to cleft palate – can be aborted up to birth, whilst ‘able-bodied’ babies may be aborted up to 24 weeks’ gestation.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) proposals had achieved wide support at Stormont earlier in the legislative process. And they were backed by disability activists including Heidi Crowter, a dynamic young campaigner with Down’s Syndrome who is part of a legal challenge seeking to overturn identical rules in England and Wales. Apparently this endorsement wasn’t enough for 45 MLAs.
The argument for the Foetal Abnormality Bill was clear, and noble. Abortion law in NI, like the rest of the UK, singles out one group of human beings as less deserving of protections than others. If a preborn baby is disabled, it is disposable right up to the moment of birth. No other category of unborn baby is singled out – not by sex, or race, or any other characteristic. It is disability discrimination, plain and simple.
The bill was not about undermining a woman’s ‘right to choose’ as some of the loudest opponents claimed tonight. That wouldn’t have been affected up to 24 weeks into pregnancy and a provision allowing abortion in difficult cases of severe ‘fatal foetal abnormalities’ would have remained. The bill was about respecting the right of people with disabilities not to be singled out for unfair treatment.
When presented with this fact, a majority of the UK public agree that discrimination does exist in abortion law, that it’s unacceptable, and that it should change. A staggering 99.6 per cent of responses by NI citizens to the consultation on the bill were supportive. 45 MLAs didn’t care though. They decided posturing and undermining the DUP was more important than disability equality and democracy.
As disability groups note, the legislation considered tonight would have sent an important message to wider society, as well as affording more protections to disabled preborn babies. Lynn Murray, spokeswoman for Don’t Screen Us Out, a group championing rights for the Down’s Syndrome community, puts it well:
“As a mother of a daughter with Down’s syndrome, it is devastating to see that this important piece of legislation will not proceed further at Stormont. Simply, by removing a small discriminatory clause, this Bill provided an opportunity to sever the connection between congenital disability and abortion, signalling a greater acceptance of people such as those who have Down’s syndrome.”
That chance is gone now, for the time being. The only hope remaining in the face of tonight’s shameful vote is the fact that people like Lynn and Heidi Crowter are not giving up. As Lynn added in her quote to the press this evening, the bill was just “one of many fronts that our community are seeking change on and this will only serve to further motivate us to work even harder”.
I stand four square behind the disabled people’s community on this. Many others do too. It is time for politicians to stand behind them as well. History will not judge the naysayers kindly.