Summary of briefing on Lord Shinkwin’s Disability (Abortion Equality) Bill

Summary of briefing on Lord Shinkwin’s Disability (Abortion Equality) Bill

Here's a summary of our briefing on Lord Shinkwin's Disability (abortion equality) bill and TTR's thoughts on the situation. The full briefing is available to download by following this link

Outline of the Bill

Baron Shinkwin, a disabled member of the House of Lords, has introduced a Private Member’s Bill called the Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill. The Bill proposes that the time limit for abortion of foetuses where there is a “substantial risk” of “serious handicap” should be brought into line with the time limit for non-disabled foetuses.

The law as it stands

Currently the abortion law in Great Britain excluding Northern Ireland allows for abortion at any stage of the pregnancy up to full term if the mother’s life or health is seriously endangered. It allows for abortion up to 24 weeks if there would be a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother or her existing children from having another baby. And it allows for abortion up to full term if there is a “substantial risk of serious handicap” to the foetus.

The effects of the law

In 2015 in England and Wales 3,213 late term abortions were carried out where the baby was deemed to be at substantial risk of “serious handicap”. This represents 2% of all abortions, although there is significant under-reporting of these abortions, and the true figure is likely to be appreciably higher. In Scotland in the same year there were 186 late term abortions for “serious handicap”.

The meaning of “seriously handicapped”

The law gives no definition of this term, and it is left to be determined by clinical judgement and accepted practice. People with personal experience of disability have tried to challenge abortions performed for relatively minor defects such as cleft lip and palate, but the courts have not upheld their views.
From this it would seem that the disability rights movement’s mantra of “nothing about us without us” is suspended in the area of deciding what constitutes a “serious handicap”. It is non-disabled members of the legal and law enforcement professions who decide what constitutes a “handicap” so serious that the unborn child would be better off dead, and the opinion of someone with actual experience of living with a similar or more severe disability counts for nothing.

In 1996 before the Abortion Act was passed, suggestions that it would lead to terminations on the grounds of relatively minor conditions such as cleft palate were described by Sir David (now Lord) Steel, the Bill’s sponsor, as “a gross calumny on the medical profession” and by other participants in the debate as “pure scaremongering”. These remarks seem naïve, if not disingenuous, in the light of the fact that in 2015 11 late term abortions were performed for cleft lip and palate.

The case for Lord Shinkwin’s proposed amendment

Over the past 5 years there has been a 56% increase in terminations after 24 weeks on the grounds of “serious handicap”. Taken over the past 10 years the figure is a 68% increase, and over the past 20 years a 271% increase.

The mainstay of Lord Shinkwin’s argument is that the law no longer allows discrimination against persons on the grounds of their disability. This is recognised by both the UK Equality Act and the European human rights legislation. To allow abortion up to full term of foetuses purely on the grounds of disability establishes in law a pernicious threat to the lives of disabled people.

Objections to Lord Shinkwin’s proposal

Most of the objections have come from people who believe that a woman has an absolute right over her own reproductive choices and that no one has the right to interfere with that.
Others contest that equality and disability legislation cover only the rights of living persons, and that under British law a foetus has no legal status independent of its mother. This is incorrect. A foetus does indeed have legal status and legal protection in respect of certain characteristics. An abortion cannot be performed on the grounds that the mother would be mentally distressed by having a baby of a particular gender, ethnicity, skin colour or sexual orientation. Disability is the only characteristic that is a particular target for discrimination.

Progress of Lord Shinkwin’s Bill

The Private Member’s Bill was first debated in the House of Lords on 25th May 2016 and was granted a second reading. This took place on 21st October 2016. The Bill passed its second reading, and will now proceed to the Committee stage (although no date has yet been set for this) followed by the Report stage, before receiving its third reading in the House of Lords. If it passes its third reading, it will then proceed to the House of Commons.

Through the Roof’s view

The Bible is clear that all of us are made in the image of God, that all of us are loved by God, and that God has a special place in His heart for those whom the world despises. God acknowledges Himself as the creator of those with and without disabilities and declares His knowledge of, and support for, the unborn.

The Bible also leaves us in no doubt that disabled people have a major role to play in the purposes of God. People with physical impairments, mental illnesses and life-limiting anxiety disorders all feature as some of the great champions of the Bible.

The most important message we can give to disabled people is that God created you because you are an essential component of the universe as He desired it to be. In what the world perceives as your weakness, He makes known His strength. In what the world perceives as your foolishness, He makes known His wisdom. Where the world perceives your disability as shame we, the people of God, bestow honour. As the Church we need what God supplies through you. Without you, God’s house is not full.

Through the Roof fully supports Lord Shinkwin’s Bill. We would welcome a world in which disability is not seen as a ground for abortion at any stage of pregnancy, but we recognise the pragmatism of Lord Shinkwin, in that it would be very difficult to get support in Parliament for a ban on all abortions for disability. We invite you to pray with us for the Bill’s success at all stages of its journey through Parliament, and to encourage your own MP to support it, so that in future there will be no discrimination against the unborn on the basis of disability.