Disability and abortion are two words not without a creeping discomfort. More so, when put together. The latter recently reared its head; casual calls to draw back a woman’s right to choose are now familiar in their cyclicality. The Tory minister for women Maria Miller, for her part, would like to reduce the abortion time limit to 20 weeks. Despite the fact that this is the point when many foetal abnormalities are detected, Miller, the former minister for disabled people, made no mention of what it would mean for women whose 20-week scan showed their child would have a disability. She either hadn’t thought it through or didn’t much care.
Some people seem to care, often more than they should. Last month, an alliance of “pro-life” campaigners and religious groups launched a campaign to ban the termination of pregnancies on the grounds of disability. The Paralympics – with its “astonishing examples of courage and triumphs over disability” – they said, highlighted the “contradiction” in the current abortion law.
The contradiction they refer to is that while the Abortion Act 1967 sets a 24-week limit on having an abortion, when there is “substantial risk that if the child were born, she or he would have physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped”, there is no limit. There are good reasons for that – medicine, practicality and basic human empathy.
Last year, out of the almost 190,000 abortions in England and Wales, 146 of them were after the 24-week point. However, the percentage of couples who choose an abortion after discovering their baby will have Down’s syndrome is routinely 90%. For some, being told their child will have a severe disability is reason enough not to go ahead with the pregnancy. Worse (if certain moral judgments are to be applied), this is sometimes the case for pregnancies resulting from IVF that, before the word “disabled” was uttered, were much wanted.
Those trying to ban abortions on disability grounds claim that this is “eugenics”, a form of “disability discrimination”. And they think a sporting event that displays the most physically able disabled people tells us all we need to know about disability and, while we’re at it, a woman’s decision-making process. These are campaigners who reduce the nuances of disability to an insulting level, yet speak as if they are saving us from being wiped out, and we should be grateful.
There are times when abortion is the humane choice. In reality, there are times when people feel they simply cannot cope. It’s OK to say that out loud. The thought doesn’t suggest a disabled life is worth less, but acknowledges the extra time, energy and money a severely disabled life needs. Right now, there are parents of disabled children who are having to skip meals to pay the gas bill. There are disabled children who aren’t getting the childcare, schools, therapies or even healthcare they need. If aborting a disabled foetus makes you uncomfortable, perhaps that should too.
It’s convenient to judge the individual choosing the abortion. Truth is, many make their choice based on the conditions of society. To care about disability means working to make these changes, not using it as a smokescreen to take women’s rights.