Abortion and disability: the case for social justice

by Oxford Students for Life

Guest blogger: Ruth Akinradewo is a second-year undergraduate studying French and Italian at the University of Oxford. She blogs at The Change Channel.

As a Christian who values the gift of life, the idea of not being opposed to abortion has never been an option for me. Still, of late having had my attention drawn to the distressing repercussions that the legalisation of abortion has had on disabled people, I now find myself faced with an even greater pile of evidence to show the extent of severe harm that termination can bring.

Opposition to abortion is typically, and rightly, focused on the taking away of an innocent life; the notable harm incurred on the mother and others; the paradox of having such a high rate of abortions when there are so many childless couples tenderly awaiting the joy of parenting . . . But few people tend to talk about the fact that terminations provide ammunition for the myth that disabled people are less valuable than the rest of society.

I didn’t know it myself until very recently: current UK law permits the abortion of foetuses deemed to have physical handicaps up to 40 weeks. Medical professionals agree that at 37 weeks the foetus is full-term; moreover, general legislation on abortion in this country caps the cut-off period for termination at 24 weeks. But if the baby doctor looks at a scan of you in your mother’s womb and decides you’re disabled, he and your parents are permitted by law to cut your life short even after you’ve fully developed and possess the necessary characteristics to live and breathe the air of the outside world.

In 2011, 144 abortions were carried out in England and Wales after 24 weeks.

That is scary.

What is more, doctors can be wrong: at last term’s OSFL Pro-Life Feminism panel discussion, Emily Watson spoke of how her mum had been told her brother would be born with Down’s Syndrome and no such thing happened.

The UK Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion on the Grounds of Disability, which took place in 2013, rightly compared the aims of the 2010 Equality Act, which promises to prohibit discrimination based on disability, with the Abortion Act, which prevents individuals from being guilty of an abortion offence if ‘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.’

Is it just me or do these two acts of legislation contradict each other?

Shielded by UK law, 2,732 abortions were carried out in 2013 under ground E of the Abortion Act. “Congenital malformations” and “chromosomal abnormalities” were often cited as the reason for implementing the termination. “Down’s syndrome (22% of all such cases) was the most commonly reported chromosomal abnormality.”

I was moved to tears when at the same panel discussion I mentioned earlier, Isabel Errington detailed how one of her friends had defied the doctors and had chosen to carry her disabled baby to term, leaving her only a matter of days to spend in life with him. Despite the brevity of the precious time they spent together, this mother spoke with tenderness of cherishing the gift of a son that she had been given.

The claim that killing off disabled babies is the best course of action for the child (think Richard Dawkins) is not only extremely offensive, it is extremely presumptuous. Who can say before they have given a child the chance to live that their lives will not be worth living?

Try telling that to Nick Vujicic, who, despite being born with neither arms nor legs, obtained a bachelor’s degree, is now an internationally-famous motivational speaker, and a husband and father.

If someone in Nick’s situation can achieve so much despite being “seriously handicapped”, as UK law puts it, then how much more those born with cleft lips and palate, who – yes, it is true – are being aborted under Ground E legislation each year?

With the mind of someone who cares deeply about social justice, I cannot sit still in the face of such injustices. I am inspired by friends and family who suffer or have suffered with disabilities and still rise up each day with fresh vigour to live their lives without being held back.

I cannot bear to see the experiences of people such as these being forgotten or ignored by those that believe they’d be better off dead. Baroness Grey-Thompson, speaking in a talk hosted by OSFL, highlighted that the discrimination that disabled people face shows no signs of abating and I am convinced it is precisely the position assumed by laws such as Ground E of the Abortion Act, that are inhibiting progress and the social justice that the disabled deserve to be a part of.

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