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Smiling boy with Down Syndrome

This week a Parliamentary Inquiry into abortion on the grounds of disability was launched in the UK. This is a major opportunity for social justice for our community. We applaud Fiona Bruce MP, the Inquiry Chair, for this most welcome and important initiative to stop discrimination against the disabled community.

Ann Furedi, the chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service was quick out of the block to criticise the inquiry, labelling disability “tragic” whilst endorsing disability selective abortion up until birth and revealing her discriminatory attitude towards the disabled. This open letter is our response to her article.

Dear Ann Furedi,

In your article in The Telegraph, dated 31 January 2013, you go out of your way to criticise an important initiative from your government to promote the rights of the disabled. You take the opportunity to label a disability “tragic” whilst endorsing disability selective abortion up until birth and display a discriminatory attitude towards our community.

Saving Downs welcomes the UK Parliamentary Inquiry into abortion on the grounds of disability as an important social justice initiative for our community. Down syndrome is targeted for birth prevention in the UK under a national screening programme.  Birth data from the UK shows that the national screening programme is mostly being used for the birth prevention of babies with Down syndrome, rather than birth preparation or life affirming care. The high termination rate for Down syndrome is a concern and is indicative of an underlying attitude of negative bias from the medical community and discrimination.

In your article you stated:

“We will all have different views on abortion for fetal abnormality. They are the most controversial of abortions and arguably the most tragic for often they involve wanted, planned-for pregnancies.”

Please understand Ann, that a disability is not tragic. Disabled people are not tragic; they are our fellow human beings. Like all, they have inherent dignity and value – just like you and me. They are not defined by their difference, but by their humanity.

Your attitude devalues the lives of all people with disabilities and indeed all human life, as none of us are perfect.

You rightly point out that parents who face an unexpected prenatal diagnosis have planned and wanted pregnancies. Well, the value and inherent dignity of that wanted child does not suddenly change on a basis of a genetic difference or disability.

The humane and compassionate response to parents in these situations is to provide life affirming support through to the birth of their child. That is why they are in the care of midwives: to provide nurturance and loving care for the births of their children.  Taking wanted and planned pregnancies and then selecting those that get born because of their potential level of ability points to an ablest view of the world. Selecting who gets born based on their biological or genetic difference, such as is the case for Down syndrome and Spina Bifida for example, is eugenics. Do you support selective abortion for other biological differences such as sex, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, or is it just for potential ability? Eugenics has no place in a civilised society Ann; it devalues those most worthy of our support.

You go on to state:

“But we can trust women to make decisions that are right and responsible.”

Now you are confusing issues. The inquiry is about abortion on the grounds of disability and whether this is discrimination. It is not about women’s abilities to make decisions. Any negative distinction in law on the basis of a disability is discrimination. The current abortion law in the UK and other countries such as New Zealand and Australia makes an exception for abortion solely on the basis of a disability. That is based on a view that the life of a disabled person is of less worth and therefore they have less legal protection under the law than their fellow human beings. That is discrimination, and it devalues the lives of all people living with a disability and their families.

You then go on to state:

“And we can trust doctors to act in ‘good faith’.”

OK, so now we see a disconnection with reality, or an attempt to brush over the obvious. There is a widespread understanding in the disability community that many doctors encourage women to take the lives of their unborn child on the basis of a diagnosis of a disability. It is not an issue confined to the UK, it happens in many countries including New Zealand. Every blog site that advocates on this issue has countless testimonies from mothers who have not been supported by their doctors when facing an unexpected diagnosis. The international birth data confirms this attitude of discrimination from the medical community.None of this is not say that many doctors provide life affirming support in these situations, as they should, and we are certainly most thankful for that. But, the negative bias towards terminations and discriminatory attitudes has to stop.

Given that you are the chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, it seems incredible that you are not aware of the practice of your own profession.

You conclude with:

“The last thing doctors, or their patients, need is the scrutiny of an inquiry concerned, not with the care of women – but with the presumed political impact of people’s personal decisions.”

Now you are trying to push a different agenda.

This inquiry is exactly what the disability community needs: the removal of discriminatory laws against the disabled.

This inquiry is also exactly want parents facing an unexpected diagnosis need: a positive step towards a new life affirming environment where their children will be welcomed and supported with loving care and acceptance.

The time has come for the full recognition of human rights for the disabled and this inquiry is a welcome step in that direction.

Cross-posted from Mike Sullivan, spokesperson for Saving Downs, a group that advocates for people with Down Syndrome.

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