A 26-year-old British woman with Down Syndrome, Heidi Crowter, recently took the Department of Health and Social Care to court, arguing that part of the UK’s Abortion Act was “discriminatory and violated the European Convention on Human Rights”.
The UK law allows abortions up until 24 weeks of pregnancy, but stipulates that timeframe can be extended 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”.
Heidi brought the case with two others, saying the legislation is offensive and disrespectful to those living with the condition, and says she wants to change the law to challenge people's perceptions of Down syndrome.
A long-time Down syndrome campaigner, Heidi has lived independently and last year tied the knot with her husband James Carter who also has Down syndrome.
The couple demonstrate what should already be a given – that their genetic condition doesn’t take away the value of their lives.
However the UK court ruled against them, saying that the Abortion Act was “not unlawful” and “aimed to strike a balance between the rights of unborn children and that of women”.
Heidi and the two other advocates say they will appeal the decision.
“The fight is not over,” said Heidi. “We face discrimination every day in schools, in the workplace and in society. Thanks to this verdict, the judges have upheld discrimination in the womb too.”
The claimants lawyer, Paul Conrathe, said the verdict was “out of step with modern attitudes to disability”.
"By allowing babies with [Down] syndrome to be aborted up to birth, unlike neurotypical babies, the law sends a powerful message that the lives of people with [Down] syndrome are of lesser value," he said.
In addition to the devaluing of people with Down Syndrome by such laws, Women’s Forum Australia CEO Rachael Wong, has previously written about the pressure on women to abort when faced with a Downs diagnosis.
“Women in our society are subject to constant pressure to be perfect: to have perfect bodies, perfect careers, and now to have perfect children,” said Rachael. “Thus increasingly, women faced with a Downs diagnosis are being presented with abortion as the only 'choice' by medical practitioners, family members, colleagues and even complete strangers.”
“Our hearts go out to women and families who are frightened by a Down syndrome diagnosis, but let us pause for a moment and consider why they are so scared.”
“Are they worried that their child will have a life of suffering? That they will be a burden to their family and society? That's what is being communicated to them by health professionals and authorities.”
The decision from the UK highlights the need for a renewed look at how society values people with disabilities and the support offered to women, both during pregnancy and after they have given birth.
Providing them with all the options and as much support and information as possible can help women to make the best decisions, give children with or without conditions the best possible starts and avoid the need for harmful procedures like abortion.