Meet the Mother Challenging the UK’s Down Syndrome Abortion Law

There were 3,183 abortions on the basis of disability recorded in England and Wales in 2019, 656 of them following a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.

Máire Lea-Wilson with her son, Aidan.
Máire Lea-Wilson with her son, Aidan. (photo: Courtesy photo. / Courtesy photo)

LONDON, England — On July 6, Máire Lea-Wilson intends to walk into the imposing Royal Courts of Justice in London to take part in a case that could make history. 

The 33-year-old accountant is one of two people who applied to the High Court to hear a landmark case challenging the U.K.’s law allowing abortion up to birth for Down syndrome. The application was granted last October and the hearing date set earlier this month.

Her involvement in the case dates back to February 2020, when she saw a television interview with Heidi Crowter, a young woman with Down syndrome. 

Crowter was discussing why she objected to the U.K.’s current law, which permits abortion up 24 weeks for all unborn children but with no time limit if there is a “substantial risk” of disability.

“It makes me feel unloved and unwanted,” Crowter told her interviewer.

Crowter’s words resonated with Lea-Wilson, who had given birth to her second son, Aidan, in June 2019. 

“I had discovered that Aidan would likely be born with Down syndrome when I was 34 weeks pregnant, and then was asked repeatedly if I wanted to terminate the pregnancy,” she told CNA in an email interview.

“Suddenly the way I was treated changed from an excited parent expecting a second child, to a woman facing a great tragedy who had to make a ‘choice’ — to abort my pregnancy or not.” 

“I have two sons who I love and value equally, so I cannot understand why the law does not value them equally.” 

She decided to write an open letter to British Health Secretary Matt Hancock explaining why she stood alongside Crowter in opposition to the disability clause in the Abortion Act 1967.

Section 1(1)(d) of the Act permits abortion up to 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.”

She wrote: “I have two sons. Both are headstrong, determined, independent spirits and loving. As their mother, they need me to care for them, to teach them about the world, to love them and to value them.” 

“As their mother, I can tell you I value them equally; but it appears that the law does not. The reason for this is that one of them has Down’s Syndrome, and the other does not.”

Lea-Wilson’s post was widely shared and brought her into contact with Heidi’s mother, Liz Crowter, and her solicitor. Together, they discussed how her experience could contribute to a legal case.

Máire Lea-Wilson with her sons, Tom and Aidan. / Courtesy photo.

Máire Lea-Wilson with her sons, Tom and Aidan. / Courtesy photo.

She said: “It means so much that we have the opportunity to change the law. As a mother, all I want for my son is for him to be treated fairly and equally. In his short life, we have already experienced so much discrimination. I am often asked: ‘Did you know he had Down syndrome before he was born?’”

“The implication of that question, that surely I must not have or I would have terminated the pregnancy, is incredibly hurtful and it does not afford him the value or the dignity which he deserves.” 

“I truly believe that this law, which differentiates the time limit for abortion based on disability, allows a narrative to prevail where people with disabilities are valued less and thought of as a burden on their family and society more broadly.” 

While she has not yet met with Heidi Crowter in person because of the coronavirus pandemic, she has had the “absolute honor” of getting to know fellow campaigner via Zoom calls. 

“I can think of few times in my life when I’ve laughed more,” she commented. “She is brilliant.”

The two women are being supported by the group Don’t Screen Us Out, formed amid concerns over the U.K. government’s backing of a new prenatal test expected to lead to a rise in Down syndrome-related abortions.

There were 3,183 abortions on the basis of disability recorded in England and Wales in 2019, 656 of them following a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. 

Abortion on the basis of disability is also a common practice in other European countries. The number of babies with Down syndrome born in Europe fell by half between 2011 and 2015, according to a study in the European Journal of Human Genetics.

Only 18 babies with the genetic condition were born in Denmark in 2019, while CBS News reported in 2017 that Iceland had come close to “eradicating Down syndrome births.”

Lea-Wilson thinks there is a lot at stake when the High Court hears the case on July 6-7.

“I hope that if we succeed, we can set society on the path for true equality and inclusion of people with Down syndrome,” she said.

“Recently, Richard Dawkins tweeted that it would be ‘immoral’ to knowingly bring a baby with Down syndrome into the world, and when interviewed by [RTÉ Radio 1 host] Brendan O’Connor on the matter, he suggested the reason for that would be because a baby with Down syndrome would increase the suffering in the world and would not increase the happiness.” 

She continued: “This is only one example, but from experience, I know that these narratives are commonplace. For other parents like myself, this is jarring because it in no way tallies with our lived experience.”

“Aidan brings so much joy and happiness into the world. What does this say to my son, and to other people with Down syndrome, that they don’t have equal worth? That they are not equally valued?” 

“If the law changes, I hope that new and expectant parents start to be given fair and unbiased information about the condition and, above all else, I hope that it means people like my son start to look to a future where they can live a life free from discrimination.”

Lea-Wilson and Crowter are seeking to raise £100,000 (around $140,000) to cover the cost of going to court. So far, they have raised £93,000 from almost 3,000 donations via the CrowdJustice website. But they need more help to reach their goal.

As she prepares for her day in court, Lea-Wilson is squarely focused on what she regards as the central problem of the law: its denial of the equal dignity of human beings.  

“As a society, we proclaim that we believe that everyone deserves a fair and equal chance at life. This same society decided that the point of viability, 24 weeks, was the acceptable time limit for abortion for a typically developing baby, yet not for a baby with a disability like Down syndrome,” she reflected.

“If we truly believe that people should be treated equally irrespective of ability status, if we truly believe that people with Down syndrome are valuable and deserve a place in society, then there should be parity in the law.” 

“Our laws currently do not treat people with Down syndrome equally. Would we tolerate this inequality if we replaced disability with another protected characteristic such as gender?”

Bishop Peter Chung Soon-Taick.

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