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Parliamentary commission reveals shock figures for disability abortions

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Approximately 90 per cent of unborn babies who are diagnosed with Down’s syndrome in England and Wales are aborted, a parliamentary commission has found.


The commission, chaired by MP Fiona Bruce, said that the current law on abortions for disability could be “discriminatory” and needed to be reviewed in light of equality laws and changing social attitudes to disability.

Currently, section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act 1967 permits a pregnancy to be terminated up to birth if prenatal screening reveals that there is a “substantial risk” that the child may be born “seriously handicapped”.   Abortions on other grounds can only be performed up to 24 weeks.

The commission, which heard evidence from medical bodies, campaign groups, doctors, lawyers and parents, concluded that approximately 90 per cent of children with a definite diagnosis of Down’s syndrome are aborted after prenatal testing. 

Cleft lip

In giving evidence to the commission, Professor Joan Morgan said that around seven terminations have taken place in the last decade solely for cleft lip, and five for cleft palate. 

The Christian Medical Fellowship suggested that the availability of routine prenatal screening "promotes the idea that it is part of responsible parenthood to avoid the birth of a disabled child."

The commission’s report also noted that the terms “substantial risk” and “seriously handicapped” were not defined by the law, and there was “no consensus” between doctors as to which abnormalities would warrant a termination.  

It heard that ambiguities in the Abortion Act were “causing the law to be applied in a haphazard fashion” by health professionals. 

A number of parents also felt that they were being “pushed towards an abortion without due consideration of the other options and that those parents who do decide to keep their child face discrimination.”

Fall foul

The commission concluded that the law on abortions for disability could fall foul of both the 2010 Equality Act and UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that a child “needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.”

It has recommended to Parliament that the upper limit for disability abortions should either be reduced to make it equal to the time limit for abortions on other grounds, or that section 1(1)(d) should be repealed altogether.

“It is time to review the moral, ethical, legal and practical framework within which this provision of the Abortion Act operates and how the law applies to a foetus beyond the age of viability,” the report says.

“Given the changes in domestic and international law and societal attitudes in recent years which are influencing views on disability, we recommend that Parliament reviews the question of allowing abortion on the grounds of disability.”



Report on Inquiry into abortion on grounds of disability