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Artillery Row

The worth of disabled lives is weighed in the womb

Sir Brian Souter’s comments about disability abortion are tragic but true

We are all used to hearing passionate views about abortion, but it seems a few eyebrows have been raised recently when hearing about a high-profile, multimillionaire transport tycoon’s comments on abortions where a baby has a disability.

Sir Brian Souter, co-founder of Stagecoach, was delivering a guest sermon at the evangelical Destiny Church in Glasgow when he compared late-term abortions on the basis of disability to the infamous biblical tyrant who ordered the killing of all male babies aged two or under in Bethlehem shortly after the birth of Jesus Christ. 

Souter’s key point was that abortions of unborn children with minor disabilities, including conditions such as a cleft lip, are currently legal right up to birth and that is profoundly wrong in 21st century Britain.

Is the comparison somewhat hyperbolic? Yes, but does it correspond to reality?

The abortion provider, British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), confidently declares in an article by The Times that “Mr Souter’s statement that at 39 weeks gestation, a woman could legally end a pregnancy due to a hare lip is simply untrue”. But is it?

Statistics released by the Department of Health and Social Care state explicitly that 40 abortions took place in 2021 where a baby had a cleft lip or cleft palate, including six that were at 24 weeks or beyond. 

It is not recorded at what gestation these six abortions occurred, but under our current law, because the 24-week time limit does not apply if the baby is diagnosed with a disability, these abortions could have legally taken place right up to the moment of birth.

The real figures could be much higher. European researchers, Eurocat, found in a 2013 review that 157 babies with either a cleft lip or cleft palate were aborted in England and Wales between 2006-2010, despite the Department of Health and Social Care recording only 14. 

The fact is that aborting unborn babies due to a disability is happening more and more. In 2021, 274 disability-selective abortions were performed at 24 weeks and over, a nearly 20 per cent increase from the previous year. This points to a worrying trend of what appears to be increasing pressure on parents to proceed with abortions when their baby is found to have a disability. 

Emma Mellor said she and her husband felt under continuous pressure to have an abortion from her 20-week scan — when doctors told Emma that her baby had some fluid on her brain and would likely be disabled — all the way through to when the “baby had started travelling down the birth canal”. Emma said, “In all honesty we were offered 15 terminations, even though we made it really clear that it wasn’t an option for us, but they really seemed to push and really seemed to want us to terminate.” 

At 32 weeks, a test showed that her daughter had Down’s syndrome, and Emma was reminded by doctors several times that her daughter could be legally aborted until birth.

“At 38 weeks, the doctors made it really, really, really clear that if I changed my mind on the morning of the induction to let them know, because it wasn’t too late.”

Make no mistake, Emma’s experience is not an unfortunate one-off. Research from three Down’s syndrome organisations shows that of those women pregnant with a baby with Down’s syndrome, 46 per cent were offered an abortion again after informing medical professionals that they wanted to keep their baby.

As time goes on, it seems that the pressure on women to terminate their pregnancies for babies with disabilities increases. Society constantly tells us how challenging it would be financially and practically to provide the care our children deserve. 

90 per cent of babies found to have Down’s syndrome before birth in the UK are aborted

I know this first hand. As a mother of a daughter with Down’s syndrome, it horrifies me that in the UK 90 per cent of babies found to have Down’s syndrome before birth are aborted (yes – you read that correctly). Not only does this practice appear to disregard the reality that many people with Down’s syndrome go on to lead happy and fulfilling lives, contributing hugely to those around them, but research suggests that life expectancy for people with Down’s Syndrome is nearly 60 years old now, with many living into their 70s. It is no longer around 25, as it was forty years ago due to medical neglect and institutionalisation.

In a society that attempts to pride itself on equality and inclusivity for people with disabilities, this should not be an issue that is only preached from the pulpit of Destiny Church in Glasgow, but one that unites people from across the political and religious spectrum. There is little less inclusive than perpetuating a form of ableism by singling out babies with disabilities for abortion.

Polling from Savanta ComRes in 2017 shows that only one in three of the public think it is acceptable to ban abortion for gender or race but allow it for disability. The public is right to recognise the logical implication of our current discriminatory abortion laws for babies with disabilities, which is that people with disabilities are somehow inferior or less worthy of life because of the care that they might need, an idea that is both untrue and deeply damaging. 

As a transport businessman, Sir Brian Souter may be a rather unexpected voice in this debate but we would do well to heed his warning: namely that failing to support and give hope to women and families who find themselves in these situations will lead to increasingly dire consequences for how we treat these vulnerable unborn children and the ripple effect that has on our societal culture. This needs to stop. 

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