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Caroline Farrow: We need to rethink our attitude towards abortion of disabled babies

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If I had a penny for every time someone hit me with the cliché about pro-lifers only caring about babies before they are born, then I’d be a very rich woman indeed.

But though feminists may be as vocal as Catholics when it comes to the fate of the unborn child, particularly those who are diagnosed with foetal abnormalities, you never actually see them put their money where their mouths are or indeed attempt to discuss this in any sort of mature fashion. As far as they are concerned, if a woman discovers that her unborn child has a disability then she should be able to abort that child at any point up until birth, no questions asked. Even if that disability is fairly mild or there is every chance that the child will enjoy a rich, joyful and fulfilling life.

It’s a shame that feminists didn’t attend the one day conference last week, on Abortion, Disability and the Law which was hosted by the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford, a Roman Catholic institution which engages with the moral questions arising in clinical practice and biomedical research. Feminists, along with anyone else with an interest in these areas would have been more than welcome, provided of course that they were prepared to listen and engage respectfully with an open mind.

Perhaps they would have listened to Professor John Wyatt who made a moving case for neonatal palliative care as a realistic, compassionate and morally compelling alternative to abortion in those cases where the child is diagnosed with a life-limiting condition. Neonatal palliative care is, in these circumstances, a far more holistic approach, it alleviates the baby’s suffering and allows them to actually meet their mother and be physically comforted by her as well as meeting their father, whose voice they may have come to recognise in utero. It allows for the whole family to meet the child and welcome them, and when the baby passes away, social and bereavement support is provided. The grieving parents are afforded comfort and closure and crucially the value of the baby’s life, together with the joy that even terminally children can bring, is recognised.

This surely has to be a more compassionate option than the physical misery involved in an abortion where a parent has to deal with the twin issues of grief and guilt where they have to fight their instinct and persuade themselves that they did the right thing because there was no other option. Maternity professionals need to work much harder to present the option of neonatal palliative care as being a valid and desirable choice when parents are presented with difficult news.

The other point of view that pro-choicers may wish to consider is that of Professor Finnis who outlined the consequences of removing protections from disabled unborn babies, which happened in 1990. We now have a situation whereby if a baby is diagnosed with any sort of congenital abnormality, including harelip and cleft palate, both of which are easily correctible and reversible with surgery, the baby can be aborted at any point up until birth.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve felt the baby kicking, whether you are 39 weeks and the baby could easily be born the next day and survive, if they have the slightest detectible abnormality, then you could decide to have them killed no questions asked. This was a point brought home to me 13 years ago when I was giving birth to my first child. One of my midwives broke down as she had been feeling the strain of dealing with an abortion of a 39 week pregnant woman from overseas, who had decided to abort her baby son because he had cleft palate. Despite a host of surgeons attempting to change her mind, the procedure went ahead, no doubt helped because this was in a private hospital.

Like many of the opponents of the original Abortion Act of 1967, Professor Finnis was ridiculed by MPs when he wrote to them warning that this situation could arise when the issue was debated by Parliament in 1990 but he was ignored. Now we have a situation whereby almost 3,500 babies are aborted thanks to disability every year.

It’s not surprising that disabled campaigners such as Lord Shinkwin and parents of disabled children or children with conditions like Downs Syndrome, such as the actress Sally Phillips, who also attended the conference, are concerned. The law currently explicitly singles out anyone who is less than physically perfect as being of lesser value and eligible for euthanasia. If a law was proposed allowing hospitals to euthanise new-born babies who were diagnosed with any abnormality post-birth, then there would be uproar. The only difference between a newborn and a baby in their final weeks in utero, is a matter of geography, however one is currently fair game for a lethal injection and one is not.

Peter Williams, Executive Officer of the political lobby group Right to Life, who also attended the conference, pointed out to me that if the law allowed for abortion thanks to the skin colour of the baby, we would rightly see this as repugnant racism. If the law allowed (as practically can happen), abortion on the basis of a baby’s sex, we would see this as sickening sexism. Yet when the law explicitly allows babies to be aborted because they are disabled, we somehow take a different approach. The truth is that this is discrimination, pure and simple, regardless of how it is justified.

Let’s hope that Lord Shinkwin’s campaign ends this hideous inequality which puts expectant parents under horrendous pressure and we can rid ourselves of this relic of a less tolerant and compassionate age.

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Caroline Farrow
Columnist for the Catholic Universe

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