Are abortion laws concerning Down syndrome (DS) outdated? Heidi Crowter, a 26-year-old woman with DS from Coventry, England, seems to think so. She believes the law which allows abortions up to the end of the final trimester, of babies with Down syndrome is “downright discrimination” and is now taking legal action against the UK government. Crowter is challenging legislation alongside Maire Lea-Wilson, a mother of two from West London whose son, Adian, also has the condition. Lea-Wilson hopes the legal challenge will remove “a specific instance of inequality of the law.”
In England, Scotland and Wales, there is a general 24-week window in which you can legally have an abortion. However, terminations can be permitted up until birth 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.” Controversially, this criteria also includes Down syndrome.
Crowter, Lea-Wilson and their lawyers will argue at the two-day court hearing—expected to finish on Wednesday 7 July—that the current laws as they stand are unlawfully discriminatory. Their comments come after the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities urged the British government to update its laws on abortion.
In a statement, Crowter said that “the law says that babies shouldn’t be aborted up to birth, but if a baby is found to have Down’s syndrome it can be aborted up until birth. This is the current law in the UK and I think it’s not fair. People like me are considered ‘seriously handicapped’ but I think using that phrase for a clause in abortion law is so out of date.”
Down syndrome remains the most common chromosomal condition diagnosed in the US. Each year, about 6,000 babies born in the country have Down syndrome. This means that the genetic disorder occurs in about one in every 700 babies. In the UK, about 750 babies are born with Down syndrome every year and there are an estimated 40,000 people in the country living with the condition.
According to the campaign group Don’t Screen Us Out, the latest figures report that 90 per cent of babies who are prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are absorbed. On its website, it states: “As National Institute for Health and Research RAPID evaluation study projects, 102 more children with Down’s syndrome would be detected due to the implementation of second-line cfDNA screening (NIPT – non-invasive prenatal testing), 92 of these babies would be aborted.”
The campaign group argues that this “would have a profound long-term effect on the population of the Down’s syndrome community, and enable a kind of informal eugenics in which certain kinds of disabled people are effectively ‘screened out’ of the population before they are even born.”
In many nations across Europe, including the UK, the termination rate after a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis has risen to more than 90 per cent. In Iceland, where prenatal testing is widespread, one geneticist told CBS, “We have basically eradicated, almost, Down syndrome from our society.” In Denmark, where all pregnant women are offered screening scans, the disorder is heading for “extinction” according to The Copenhagen Post. This is in stark juxtaposition with Ireland, one of the few Western European countries where a disability like Down syndrome is still commonplace after, only recently, did the nation vote to reverse the country’s strict constitutional restrictions on abortion.
This has become contentious in the already multifaceted public discourse and debate regarding abortion. On one hand, it could be argued that science has developed a way to pinpoint when Down syndrome may occur, giving the parent the insight—and more importantly the choice—to make their own decision about whether to raise a child with such disorders.
However, as much as I reside on the side of pro-choice in the ethics of abortion, scientists bragging how bringing a disorder to “extinction”—a disorder which people can still have a decent quality of life by having, may I add—doesn’t quite sit right with me. It feels like somewhat of a slippery slope into dystopian eugenics.
It’s important to consider the Down syndrome community when weighing in on this complex debate. One mother of a ten-year-old with DS told a reporter that she worries her son’s community is “being wiped off the face of the Earth with abortion.” Likewise, Crowter herself believes that being labelled as “seriously handicapped” is out of date and misrepresentative of her condition.
Who’s right? To be completely honest, I don’t know. I don’t have Down syndrome, I can only chime into this discussion from a limited, external level and thus, my personal opinion is somewhat superfluous. What is more apparent is that this debate is not just about prenatal testing but about personhood—it’s about whether Down syndrome should be considered a condition or a disease. We’ve come a long way since the 1980s where people with Down syndrome were heavily discriminated against and labelled with the ‘mongoloid’ slur. We’ll find out whether the UK government believes it’s time to change its position this week.
Last week, the Polish government enforced a new controversial near-total ban on abortion, which has taken effect from midnight on Wednesday 27 January 2021. This announcement came after a court ruling allowing the prohibition prompted huge protests when it was issued in October 2020. What does this new ban mean for Polish citizens seeking abortion and how will it deprive women of sexual and personal independence?
The October ruling by the Constitutional Court found that a 1993 law allowing abortion in cases of severe and irreversible foetal abnormalities was unconstitutional. According to data from the Polish Ministry of Health, in 2019, 98 per cent of abortions were carried out on those grounds, meaning that the ruling effectively banned the vast majority of pregnancy terminations in Poland.
Understandably, the ruling provoked outrage from supporters of the right to abortion, which prompted the largest protests in the country since the fall of communism. More than 100,000 people gathered in the streets of Warsaw on Friday 30 October 2020.
The tribunal’s decision, which was in response to a challenge from a group of rightwing MPs, has focused anger on the Law and Justice (PiS) party. PiS has ruled Poland since 2015 and has been accused of eroding democratic norms during its time in power by packing the constitutional tribunal with its supporters among other things.
During the nationwide protests, far-right groups attacked protesters, and government figures appeared to stoke the tensions. The PiS leader and deputy prime minister, Jarosław Kaczyński, told people they should “defend churches” from the protesters after some were defaced. Senior figures in the country’s powerful Catholic church spoke out in favour of the constitutional ruling.
However, as a result of the protests, Poland’s rightwing government decided to delay implementation of the controversial court ruling and stated that it was ‘open to dialogue’—until now. From Wednesday 27 January 2021, the ban has taken effect. Abortion is now allowed only in cases of rape, incest or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother.
The court justified its ruling on the grounds that “an unborn child is a human being” and therefore it deserves protection under Poland’s constitution which ensures the right to life. Following the announcement that the ruling would now be enforced, groups defied coronavirus restrictions (again) to protest in Warsaw.
Waving red flares and LGBT flags, some carried placards reading ‘Free Choice, Not Terror’, ‘Abortion without borders’, ‘Abortion is my right’ or ‘You will not burn these witches’. Unsurprisingly, the majority of Poles oppose a stricter ban and activists have called for more street protests in the capital.
“I want us to have our basic rights, the right to decide about our bodies, the right to decide what we want to do and if we want to bear children and in what circumstances to have children,” one protester, Gabriela Stepniak, told Reuters news agency.
Leaders of the nationwide Women’s Strike movement that opposed the ban wore green headscarves in a nod to Argentina’s women’s movement that successfully campaigned to legalise abortion. Banners bearing the lightning bolt emblem of the Women’s Strike movement fluttered overhead, along with the red and white of the Polish flag.
Warsaw’s mayor Rafał Trzaskowski tweeted his opposition to the move, calling on women to reject the decision on the streets.
On the other side, groups who support the ban say it is about the human rights of the child. “We are very happy that this judgement has been published. It is a great step towards the realisation of human rights of all human beings,” Karolina Pawlowska from the Ordo Iuris international law centre told the BBC.
“This also means there will no longer be discrimination against children who are sick or disabled,” she said, adding that the court’s ruling was in line with the Polish constitution and UN treaties on the rights of the child.
It is known that Poland has some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws, and around 1,000 legal terminations are performed each year. An estimated 200,000 women have abortions illegally or travel abroad for the procedure.
During last week’s protests, police were deployed in significant numbers in central Warsaw. Loudspeakers on police cars broadcast the message that the gathering was illegal and called for those gathered to disperse. Video of the protest showed what appeared to be tear gas being used.
But the crowds of demonstrators remained defiant as they walked toward the official residence of PiS chief Jarosław Kaczyński in the city’s northern Żoliborz district. The protesters took detours down back streets to avoid police blockades but a large police presence prevented them from getting close to the residence and the protest eventually broke up after midnight.
This near-total ban on abortion is seen by the law’s critics as the latest attack on social freedoms by a right-wing government that openly disdains Western liberal values, uses homophobic rhetoric and has eroded protections for the LGBTQ community.
The current dispute over women’s reproductive rights has once again laid bare the cultural, moral and political divisions that run deep through Polish society. However, for now, it remains unclear whether the latest protests will persuade the government to pursue a different course.