Editor’s note. Last Friday the “Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill” had what’s called its “Second Reading” in the House of Lord. Votes, I’m told, are not ordinarily taken after the second reading and none was taken October 31.
NRL News Today has carried multiple posts about this extremely important measure. Lord Shinkwin explains with great insight below what is at stake.
Under the 1967 Abortion Act, abortion is currently permitted at any stage of pregnancy if two doctors give the opinion that “there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.”
As he makes clear in his remarks, the bill’s reach is very, very modest. Abortion, especially abortions for genetic reasons, is so deeply embedded in British culture, nothing more expansive could possible ever pass–at least now.
But passage of this “modest, logical and reasonable Bill” would be a huge first step. As he says, “The difference in practice is modest; the difference in principle is huge.”
Lord Shinkwin’s remarks truly are memorable and need to be shared.
My Lords, as someone with a disability, it gives me immense pride to present to your Lordships’ House a Bill about disability rights and the fundamental principle of equality under the law. Noble Lords have treated me with nothing but respect as an equal since my introduction to your Lordships’ House just under a year ago. The reason for my Bill is that in respect to disability before birth the law does not recognise or accept that equality.
I wonder if I could extend an invitation to noble Lords to join me briefly on a journey, to put themselves in my place and to view the issues under discussion from a disabled person’s perspective. From this disabled person’s perspective, there is a stark anomaly, an inconsistency in the law, whereby discrimination on grounds of disability is both prohibited in law after birth yet, confusingly, actually enshrined in law at the very point at which the discrimination begins, at source, before birth.
How do I know it is enshrined in law and that disability discrimination begins before birth? I know because the law says so. It is there in black and white in Section 1(1) of the Abortion Act 1967, which gives disability as one of the grounds for abortion:
“if two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith … that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped”.
So by rights I should not be here. I should be dead. Indeed, more than that, according to the eugenic screening programme of our Department of Health, I would be better off dead because of serious handicap, to use the outdated terminology of the Act.
I regard my Private Member’s Bill as a modest, reasonable and logical correction of that anomaly in the law to bring it into line with the thrust and spirit of existing disability discrimination and equality legislation.
Before I go into the detail of why I regard my Bill as a modest, reasonable and logical correction of that anomaly, I would like to place my Bill in context. I do so in the context of gratitude to the various clinicians who have treated me over the years without any discrimination, especially Hanus Weisl, a wonderful Jewish orthopaedic surgeon who rebuilt his life after a narrow escape from Nazi-occupied Prague in 1939 and rebuilt me as a child with brittle bones more times than I care to remember—how I wish I could thank him today—to my family and friends for only ever supporting me and never discriminating against me; to our Holy Mother for her non-discriminatory, sustaining love; and to your Lordships’ House for its tireless work to advance disabled people’s rights, as demonstrated by the pivotal role it played in securing the Disability Discrimination Act 21 years ago and the Equality Act, and for the authoritative report of the Select Committee, The Equality Act 2010: The Impact on Disabled People. In fa
ct, I hope the new Minister for Disabled People, Penny Mordaunt, will look at its pragmatic recommendations again.
The second context in which my Bill must be placed is historical. I cannot seriously believe that noble Lords could ever have intended any law to discriminate to the eugenic extent that Section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act 1967 permits and of which a particular regime of the 1930s and 1940s would heartily approve.
Moreover, I struggle to understand how such eugenics can somehow be in any way less abhorrent 80 years later, especially given the supposed societal and attitudinal changes that have transpired since and the marvellous medical advances that have been made in that time. I also cannot believe that noble Lords could have intended that laws governing or giving rise to disability discrimination should be moving, in their effects, in such conflicting and contradictory directions as equality law is on the one hand and abortion law is on the other.
The inconsistency would be farcical if its impact were not so tragic. This is perhaps highlighted by how ridiculous it is that I should be a Member of your Lordships’ House, for whom a Health Minister recently professed in an email to me, no doubt sincerely, to have the greatest respect, yet were a younger, unborn version of me to be detected in the womb today, Section 1(1)(d) of the Act and his department’s search-and-destroy approach to screening would make me a prime candidate for abortion.
How is that consistent with respect or equality?
It is in the context of such contradiction that I regard my Bill as modest, reasonable and logical. The logic I have just explained. I believe it to be modest and reasonable because its scope is so limited. This is borne out by the legal advice I have received by Hugh Preston QC [Queen’s Counsel] that the practical effect of my Bill would be that, where there is a substantial risk of serious handicap, the mother’s ability to abort would be governed by the same criteria that apply in the case of any other foetus. Where the foetal handicap is such as to present a risk to the mother’s life or a risk of serious permanent damage to her, the mother would still be allowed by law to abort right up to birth.
Moreover, where the risk of injury to the mother is not so grave as to meet these criteria, the question of abortion would be governed by Section (1)(1)(a) of the Abortion Act—that is, abortion is permitted subject to there being a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother or her existing children greater than the risk of continuing with the pregnancy. In practice, in circumstances where a mother has concluded that she does wish to have an abortion, having decided that she does not wish to have a seriously handicapped child—to use the outdated wording of the Act—the advice I have been given is that one anticipates that this relatively low threshold would not be difficult to overcome, as indeed is the case generally for foetuses presenting no risk of serious handicap.
It follows that the practical effect of abolishing Section 1(1)(d) of the Act, which is what my Bill would do, is that any abortions by reason of disability would need to be carried out within the first 24 weeks, subject to the other sections that I have already mentioned—for example, where there is a risk of serious permanent damage to the mother or her life is at risk, in which case they will remain legally permissible until birth.
What is the legal difference between my Bill and the status quo? The difference in practice is modest; the difference in principle is huge. If a woman chose indirectly to discriminate on grounds of disability, the law would allow her to do so up to 24 weeks, but the principle of disability discrimination itself would no longer be enshrined in law, as I understand it.
Each of us has made different personal journeys to our Lordships’ House, but I submit that each of us has made that same essential journey through life: adulthood, childhood, infancy and before that the state of being an unborn baby, safe and secure in our mother’s womb. Only that is precisely the point, because for unborn babies whose disability is detected, a mother’s womb has become an increasingly dangerous place.
I will share a few statistics with noble Lords. There were 230 terminations after 24 weeks on grounds of disability in 2015, and a 56% increase in the number of terminations on grounds of disability after 24 weeks over the last five years, between 2010 and 2015. There has been a 271% increase in the number of terminations on grounds of disability after 24 weeks over the last 20 years, 1995 to 2015. There were 3,213 terminations on grounds of disability in 2015, and a 68% increase in the number of terminations on grounds of disability over the last 10 years, 2005 to 2015. There were 689 terminations for Down’s syndrome alone in 2015 and a 43% increase in the number of terminations for Down’s syndrome over the last five years, 2010 to 2015. There was a 143% increase in the number of terminations for Down’s syndrome over the last 20 years, 1995 to 2015. Perhaps almost as chilling, there were 11 terminations for cleft lip or palate in 2015—an easily surgically rectifiable condition.
I find the contrast between the 0.3% decline over the last decade in the number of overall abortions and the rise in the number of abortions on unborn babies detected with a disability alarming and deeply offensive.
As a disabled person, I am a prime candidate for abortion on the grounds of disability. I admit that I would like to say to the eugenicists in the Department of Health and those who obviously fail to appreciate the enormity of what is being perpetrated in our name:
“How dare you? How dare you wipe us out as mere conditions?,” as the journalist Janice Turner so poignantly, if sadly approvingly, put it in the Times recently. My message to Janice Turner and all those who share such views is this: I am your equal. I will not be defined by my disability. I will be defined by who I am and by my contribution to your Lordships’ House and public service.
In conclusion, I know why they dare.
They dare because they can, because discrimination in the form of abortion on grounds of disability is both lethal and legal, enshrined in law by Parliament and by your Lordships’ House. They dare not only because Parliament has legalised disability discrimination before birth or even simply legitimised it. No, we have gone one better than that and have allowed it to be normalised.
I suggest that, collectively, we are in denial about the consequences of the choices we have made. But to deny equality here is inconsistent, incompatible and irreconcilable with the wonderful work that your Lordships’ House has done over many years to advance disability rights and equality.
It is within that noble tradition of equality legislation that my Bill sits, and that is why I hope noble Lords will agree that my modest, logical and reasonable Bill deserves support and, crucially, government time in order that this corrosive, unjust and deeply discriminatory anomaly in the law is corrected, and equality is upheld in a society that is truly for everyone. I beg to move.