DUP proposes changes to abortion law to protect disabled babies

18 February 2021

The Northern Irish Assembly has this week heard the first reading of a proposal to change the law on abortion which would introduce new protections for disabled children.

The private member’s bill was brought forward by Paul Givan MLA, and is backed by campaign group Don’t Screen Us Out. If the bill gets a second reading and a majority of MLA support, it will progress to the committee stage for scrutiny.

Protecting unborn disabled babies

The private member’s bill proposes an amendment to the existing legislation on abortion, and represents the first attempt to change Northern Irish abortion laws since devolution was restored last year.

In June 2020, MPs in Westminster voted to impose regulations on Northern Ireland that introduced the most extreme abortion laws in the UK. This legalised abortion in all circumstances until 12 weeks’ gestation. However, if the pregnancy is deemed to pose a risk to the mother’s mental or physical health, abortion is allowed up to 24 weeks. Abortion is allowed any time up to birth if the baby is diagnosed with a fatal fetal abnormality.

The new bill proposes that non-fatal disabilities, such as Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and clubfoot, are not grounds for abortion. If the amendment is accepted, it would bring the law in Northern Ireland closer in line to legislation in the Republic of Ireland, where abortions are allowed in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, but not for conditions such as Down’s syndrome.

In the rest of the UK, abortion is in effect allowed up to birth for any disability, including minor disabilities such as Down’s syndrome. Don’t Screen Us Out is currently campaigning for a change to the 1967 Abortion Act that would prevent late-term abortions for all non-fatal disabilities.

Already in the UK, some 90% of unborn babies diagnosed with Down’s syndrome are aborted, and many pregnancies diagnosed with a disability end in abortion, even after 24 weeks, which marks the legal limit for abortion in any other case. Over the past decade, several doctors have even spoken out in support of ‘after-birth abortion’ for babies born with a disability.

‘Fighting a prejudicial piece of legislation’

Heidi Crowter, of Don’t Screen Us Out, who has Down’s syndrome and has been working alongside Mr Givan, commented: “This bill that allows abortion up to birth in Northern Ireland makes me feel that I am not as valued as anyone else. Maybe people are even told that living with Down’s syndrome is too hard, but research confirms that people with Down’s syndrome and their families are happy with their lives!”

Speaking to Good Morning Ulster, Mr Givan also commented: “This is an opportunity for people to come together and fight a prejudicial discriminatory piece of legislation.

“We have introduced laws called the Disability Act of 1995 and we have built upon that to place duties on public authorities and support people with disabilities.

“I believe that those rights – and these are human rights – ought to be conferred upon people before they are born and that is what this campaign is going to be about.”

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