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Disability and Abortion

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babyOn 2 February Students for Life (SFL) was pleased to welcome Philippa Taylor, head of public policy at Christian Medical Fellowship. Her subject was the relationship between disability and abortion, and due to SFL’s secular views, she spoke only from an ethical/legal perspective.

Abortion became legal in the UK in 1967 with the passing of the Abortion Act. Thus, one reason (among others) a woman can be granted an abortion is if her unborn child has a severe mental or physical handicap. And this might seem fair enough: can’t a mother choose whether or not to keep her child? And isn’t it unfair to force a woman to go through the emotional distress of having the child? Moreover, who will bear the heavy burden of the child’s complex care needs?

At first blush abortion for disability might seem obviously legitimate. It has been suggested, however, that this sort of abortion constitutes discrimination because it targets a group based on their disability: it is a form of ableism (see the Disability Discrimination Act, 1995) In any other sphere of life we would call this discrimination, so why we are so slow do so in the context of abortion?

Now, some argue that abortion is always a fundamental right. In the context of gender-selective abortion, Ann Furedi, the head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the leading independent abortion provider, has urged those who consider themselves pro-choice to have the courage of their conviction: ‘You can’t be pro-choice only when you like the choice’.

How does this relate to disability? If the idea of discriminating against the disabled in everyday life seems unthinkable, then we might feel uncomfortable about accepting that it occurs before birth. There’s a contradiction between our commitment to equality for the disabled and a woman’s right to choose. Furthermore, the UK rightly goes to great lengths to accommodate disabled people, yet allows for them to be erased before they are born—a bleak message to the disabled people’s community.

Of course, none of this makes life any easier for the families who care for disabled children. But it’s worth noting that abortion isn’t necessarily straightforward. Philippa Taylor discussed studies which show that women who opt to give birth to their disabled child—even if it only lives for a few hours—are able to grieve much better than woman who choose abortion. Many women would rather welcome a new member to the family, if only for a short while, than never to have known them.

Additionally, as Philippa Taylor reminded us, there are alternatives to abortion. For example, the Zoë’s Place Trust hospices which provide the specialist care which some disabled newborns need, and give the families a suitable place to be with their baby. Studies have shown that awareness of such care reduces the likelihood of choosing abortion.

The talk ended with a brief look at some of the positives of disability. We heard stories of the joy that disabled children bring to their families, and the remarkable successes of disabled people like Karen Gaffney (an accomplished swimmer and charity executive). To our pleasant surprise, we learnt that 99% of people with Down’s syndrome consider themselves happy.

Abortion is always going to be a difficult issue. But in the light of disability and disabled people, it seems to cast a dark shadow; the discrimination it suggests should give us pause. It is axiomatic that we should wish equality for all in society. But is it possible to square this noble desire with the current treatment of disabled unborn babies? To us at least, it seems unlikely.

Toni Saad, a medical student in Cardiff.

This article is based on one that originally appeared in the Gair Rhydd, Cardiff University’s Student Newspaper.

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