MPs bring bill to ban aborting babies with cleft lip

29 May 2020

A cross-party group of MPs, led by MP Fiona Bruce, has come together to bring forward the Abortion (Cleft lip, cleft palate and club foot) Bill, which would change the law to clarify that cleft lip, cleft palate and club foot are not grounds for abortion.

All of these minor abnormalities can be easily corrected after birth, but as the law currently stands, babies with any disability may be aborted up to birth. This has been interpreted to mean that abortion is legal up to birth based solely on a primary diagnosis of just one of these minor conditions.

The Bill is due for its first reading on 3 June and has already won the support of 12 MPs from the three largest parties. If it becomes law, these conditions will cease to be sole grounds for abortion up to birth.

Abortion in practice

Abortion statistics for England and Wales show that abortions are taking place on the grounds that an unborn baby is diagnosed with one of these conditions. Reportedly, some 75 babies were aborted between 2011 and 2018 for having been diagnosed with cleft lip or cleft palate.

Meanwhile, the government has been reluctant to release any statistics on how many babies have been aborted for club foot.

In reality however, the figures are likely much higher than reported. Despite the Department of Health and Social Care recording just 14 abortions for cleft lip and palate between 2006 and 2010, a 2013 review by Eurocat showed that 157 babies were actually aborted for cleft lip and palate in England and Wales – over 11 times as many.

Easily corrected after birth

A cleft lip and club foot can usually be picked up during the mid-pregnancy scan, between 18 and 21 weeks pregnant. Normally, the legal abortion limit is 24 weeks.

Cleft lip and palate, and club foot can all be easily corrected after birth. The main treatment for cleft lip is an operation carried out when the baby is between 3 and 6 months old. For cleft palate, the operation is usually done when the baby is between 6 and 12 months old.

Treatment for club foot usually begins within a week or two of a baby being born. Nearly all children treated with the Ponseti method go on to have pain-free, normal-looking feet.

Many high-profile individuals have previously been diagnosed with these conditions and were not held back, including footballer Steven Gerrard, who was diagnosed with club foot, and actor and Oscar-winner Joaquin Pheonix, who was born with a cleft lip.

Changing attitudes towards disability

Mrs Bruce has said that the law as it currently stands does not take into account changing attitudes towards disabilities and contradicts the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, which makes it an offence to discriminate on the basis of disability. Polling from Savanta ComRes shows that just one in three people think it is acceptable to ban abortion for gender or race but still allow it for disability.

This Bill is particularly close to Mrs Bruce, as her son was born with club foot.

Speaking to Right to Life, she commented: “The Bill will clarify that cleft lip, cleft palate and club foot are not grounds for abortion. This is a sensible law change that I am inviting all MPs, regardless of where they stand on the wider issue of abortion, to get behind and support.

“My older son was born with a club foot. He had physiotherapy every day for the first year of his life and had two operations, but now no one would ever know, apart from the most experienced clinician in this field. So I know how such a condition can be corrected. It is hard to think that such a treatable disability could have deprived my son of life, which, now in his mid-20s, he lives to the full.

“I am leading a cross-party group of MPs to bring this Bill forward because every child with one of these conditions deserves the same chance of life as my son. I also want to ensure that no parent has to go through any pressure to abort their baby for what is clearly a correctable condition.”

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