LONDON, England — A 24-year-old British woman with Down syndrome has launched a lawsuit against the UK government, seeking to change British laws allow for babies with Down syndrome to be aborted up until birth.
“At the moment in the UK, babies can be aborted right up to birth if they are considered to be “seriously handicapped.” They include me in that definition of being seriously handicapped - just because I have an extra chromosome,” Heidi Crowter told journalists this week.
“What it says to me is that my life just isn’t as valuable as others, and I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s downright discrimination.”
Crowter, along with Cheryl Bilsborrow, the mother of a two-year-old with Down syndrome, have sent a letter to the British secretary of state and are hoping to raise the £20,000 necessary to litigate the case.
Bilsborrow said she was strongly encouraged to have an abortion after doctors performed the screening test on her unborn child.
“The nurse reminded me I could have a termination right up to 40 weeks if the baby had Down’s,” Bilsborrow told the Catholic Herald.
“I just said to her: ‘I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,’ but it did make me feel very anxious.”
Abortions are legal in the UK for any reason up until 24 weeks, and most of the country’s 200,000 or so annual abortions take place before 13 weeks.
Abortions after 24 weeks are legal only if a woman's life is in danger, there is a fetal abnormality classified as “severe”, or the woman is at risk of grave physical and mental injury, the BBC reports.
If the baby has a disability, including Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and club foot, abortion is legal up to birth. About nine in ten women have abortions after being given a diagnosis of Down syndrome, the Daily Mail reports.
The “Don’t Screen Us Out” campaign in the United Kingdom has, for the past four years, been drawing awareness to and seeking to change the UK’s abortion laws, seeking to amend Abortion Act of 1967 so that abortions for non-fatal disabilities are outlawed in the third trimester, which starts around 28 weeks of pregnancy.
Lynn Murray, a spokesperson for the group, told CNA in an interview that the campaign began in response to the government’s proposal of a new screening test for Down syndrome that, according to the government, would find an additional 102 cases of Down syndrome a year.
Given the high rate of termination for babies in the UK found to have Down syndrome, the campaign formed in order to try to get the government to assess the impact that the non-invasive prenatal testing technique, called ‘cell-free DNA’ or cfDNA, would have on the Down syndrome community. The campaign attracted attention among Britons with similar concerns, she said.
The group is backing Crowter and Bilsborrow in their lawsuit against the government.
“Launching this case gets people talking about it,” she said, adding that most people don’t even realize abortion is available up until birth in the UK.
"We are keen for people with Down syndrome to advocate for themselves. And this is what Heidi has decided to do...she feels that abortion after 24 weeks suggests that the lives of people like her don't have the same value as everyone else."
The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has consistently criticised countries which provide for abortion on the basis of disability, the group says. In some countries, such as Denmark and Iceland, the abortion rate for babies found to have Down syndrom is close to 100%.
In the United States, there have been numerous attempts at the state level to ban abortions based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome.
Missouri lawmakers passed a law during 2019 that, in addition to banning all abortions after eight weeks, prohibits “selective" abortions following a medical diagnosis or disability such as Down syndrome, or on the basis of the race or sex of the baby. The law is currently blocked in the courts amid a legal challenge.
Ohio lawmakers attempted in 2017 to pass a ban on Down syndrome abortions, but a federal judge in 2019 blocked the legislation from taking effect.
Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, North Dakota, and Utah have all considered or passed similar bans.
At the federal level, the Down Syndrome Discrimination by Abortion Prohibition Act has been introduced in Congress, but has not yet been debated. The proposed law would ban doctors from “knowingly perform[ing] an abortion being sought because the baby has or may have Down syndrome.”