Disabled thinking on Abortion

The unborn person has as much dignity as you or me, no matter what its physical or mental ability.

by Peter Smith on 16 October 2012 09:20

Did you see the Paralympics? Do you remember them? I hope so. Whether or not you attended any events (tickets were almost completely sold out), any Briton with a TV can’t possibly have missed the acclaim given to the world’s top disabled athletes, who turned up in East London to compete in dozens of events across 21 sports. ParalympicsGB, our national team, came third in the gold medal table. Tens of thousands saw Ellie Simmonds, Sarah Storey et al in a victory parade through central London.

Given the outpouring of goodwill towards disabled athletes that accompanied the Games, you would have been forgiven for thinking that this might have impacted on the ways Britons think about disabled people more generally. If there was any single take-away message from the Paralympics, surely it must be that any person missing a hand, for instance, or who is especially short or unable to walk, is just as dignified as any other, more able-bodied person.

Yet these differences are, on their own, enough to abort a child on the grounds of disability up to birth (in stark contrast, a ‘healthy’ baby cannot be aborted after 24 weeks’ gestation, as the law currently stands).

As one commentator noted, ‘If the NHS introduced a policy whereby disabled children were automatically at the bottom of the list for organ donation or any other life-sustaining treatment there would rightly be a national outcry. But you won’t hear a whisper from the noisy egalitarians about the shocking discrimination embedded in Britain’s abortion laws’. How, indeed, can you cheer for our Paralympians and support Britain’s abortion laws?

Along with every other right-minded person who thinks it shocking that a child can be killed simply because he has a cleft palate or is missing a finger (or simply because she is a girl), I had hoped that the law governing terminations would be re-examined in the light of the Paralympics and the ‘discovery’ that disabled people are ‘just like us’.

What constituted ‘a substantial risk’ of a baby suffering from ‘such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped’ in 1967 or 1990 is clearly different from what is considered a serious handicap in 2012.

We are much wealthier, medical science is much better at permanently correcting deformities or alleviating handicaps, disabilities can be accommodated for far better in the workplace and at home, and progressive British society is softer and more caring (ha.)

Joanna Jepson, a model-turned-vicar who was born with a cleft lip, sought to narrow the scope of the permissible grounds for aborting a disabled child in a legal action she brought in 2003. It was clear from that case that only Parliament could define what imperfections were ‘acceptable’ and what could constitute a death sentence.

Otherwise the law, as it currently stands, accepts that the combined decisions of the mother and medical professional, if held ‘in good faith’, permit late termination for differences as slight as webbed feet, which are easily treatable and have no long-term consequences. The architects of abortion were warned about the flagrant misuse of the disability provision in 1967, and even David Steel has come to regret the egregious abuse of this law.

Instead, to widespread chagrin, the abortion debate has recently refocused on the concept of foetal viability when setting time limits for so-called ‘social’ terminations, carried out when ‘continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health’ of the mother or her (born) children.

Jeremy Hunt has opined that 12 weeks is preferable (perhaps, from his Chinese wife, he is conscious of the damning consequences of China’s one-child policy), whilst Maria Miller and Theresa May want a 20 week limit.

However, the problems with linking foetal viability to time limits are both practical - which time limit should be used: the world or national record for the earliest survivable gestation period, the average figure, or a predicted limit depending on the baby? - and principled: by some, a newborn may not be considered autonomous in any meaningful sense, or at least it is incapable of exercising its autonomy, as it needs constant care and attention from others or it will die.

The red herring of time limits has opened up space for pro-choicers to manipulate the disabled to their own ends. A current blog post by Nicky Clark on the New Statesman website points out that a wacky speaker at a Catholic mass in Ireland recently asserted that God was punishing the speaker for having an abortion by giving her a disabled grandchild.

For the record, this is definitely not Catholic teaching, or that of any other orthodox Christian denomination (feel free to correct me in the comments box below). It is a bizarre and frankly disgusting proposition.

Glen Hoddle was rightly sacked in 1999 by the FA as England coach for saying that disabled people were being made to pay for the sins of past lives. Although he should have clearly repudiated the malign comments, the press officer Clark spoke to about the Irish mass naturally attempted to reframe the story, away from the ridiculous and back to the central theme of the service (‘that all human life is sacred, that all children are precious and should be equally cherished and supported’).

This odious story provided a neat segue for Clark to conclude, with no apparent irony, that ‘It is quite simply obscene to suggest that anyone irrespective of his or her ability or disability is the manifest atonement for anything and it is beyond offensive to expect any right thinking person to accept that disable people can be degraded, stigmatised and dragged pejoratively into the debate’. Or killed for being disabled, she should have added.

To be fair to the NS, it has published pieces which consider the paradoxes of pro-choice feminism and explain why lefties can be pro-life. Actually, it was very brave of Mehdi Hasan to set out clearly why he supports a substantial reduction in the time limits. But trying to get his colleagues to empathise or even understand his position will be a nightmare, given that they cannot grasp why so many delighted mothers post sonogram pictures on the internet - even if it is on Facebook.

The unborn person has as much dignity as you or me, no matter what its physical or mental ability. This basic recognition is wired in every civilised person. Those who attempt to separate dignity and personhood from the child are displaying a delusional false consciousness that can - and will - be overcome in the public square, just as slavery once was.

Attempts to remove the notion of shame from abortion are fatally flawed: it is simply denying the common humanity of the baby in an effort to explain away a termination as though it were any other medical procedure. The pro-choice lobby should at least be honest enough to admit they support killing a creature that, but for the killing, would grow up to be you or me.

With the lamentable failure of Nadine Dorries’ attempts at enforcing a minimum provision of information so that a pregnant woman can make an informed decision within the law, any admirer of our Paralympians should now focus on making abortion as rare as possible, by supporting the radical shrinking of the legal grounds for terminations on the grounds of disability.

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