Woman with Down’s syndrome in High Court battle with Government on abortion law

·5-min read

A woman with Down’s syndrome who is taking the Government to court over a law which allows the abortion of babies with the condition up until birth has said she “won’t stand” for “discrimination” against people with disabilities.

Heidi Crowter, 26, from Coventry, is one of the three claimants bringing legal action against the Department of Health and Social Care in the hope of removing a section of the Abortion Act they believe to be an “instance of inequality”.

In England, Wales and Scotland, there is a 24-week time limit on having an abortion.

But terminations can be allowed up until birth if there is “a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped”, which includes Down’s syndrome.

At a two-day High Court hearing that began on Tuesday, lawyers on behalf of Ms Crowter argued the law is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and therefore unlawfully discriminatory.

A demonstration in support of the claimants was held outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London ahead of the landmark case, during which dozens of people held banners and placards, some of which read “Don’t screen us out” and “Love doesn’t count chromosomes”.

Ms Crowter told the PA news agency: “I am someone who has Down’s syndrome and I find it extremely offensive that a law doesn’t respect my life, and I won’t stand for it.

“I want to change the law and I want to challenge people’s perception of Down’s syndrome. I want them to look at me and say ‘this is just a normal person’.”

“That’s what this is about. It’s about telling people that we’re just humans with feelings.”

Asked whether women should still have the choice to have an abortion, Ms Crowter said: “That’s not what the case is about, but I do respect their choice.

Down’s syndrome legislation challenge
Maire Lea-Wilson and her and son Aidan, who has Down’s syndrome, outside the Royal Courts of Justice (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

“I just want them to get the right information, and just meet someone who has Down’s syndrome.”

Maire Lea-Wilson, 33, an accountant and mother of two from west London, whose son Aidan has Down’s syndrome, is also bringing the case.

She said: “I was 34 weeks pregnant when I discovered Aidan had Down’s syndrome, and I was asked if I wanted to terminate the pregnancy, in the context of a lot of medically biased information, and my own grief, three times.

“The last time I was asked to terminate the pregnancy was two days before he was born.

“It was really traumatic actually. The pressure wasn’t explicit – we were never told that is what we should do – but it was very much implied and it almost felt like we were going against medical advice by continuing the pregnancy.

“We were told how terrible Down’s syndrome was, that our lives would be very challenging. And the thing is, my experience isn’t unique. I know one woman who was asked to terminate her pregnancy 15 times.

“I have two sons who I love and I value equally and I can’t understand why the law doesn’t.

“I want Aidan to grow up knowing he’s not someone people have to cope with, he’s not a burden to society, he is a wonderful human being in his own right, and so I want the law to change so that the rules for a typical baby apply for those with Down’s syndrome.”

Putting his argument before Lord Justice Singh and Mrs Justice Lieven, the claimants’ barrister Jason Coppel QC said: “Two of the claimants are in the minority of foetuses who were diagnosed with the condition and not aborted, and they live happy and fulfilling lives, as evidence shows the majority of people with Down’s syndrome do.

“The mother of Aidan believes it is morally and ethically wrong to destroy a life on the grounds of a disability. But what we will try and establish is that it is legally wrong.”

Mr Coppel said the current law “stereotypes and demeans”.

Ms Crowter and Ms Lea-Wilson want to make it unlawful to abort a child on the basis of them being diagnosed with a non-fatal foetal disability such as Down’s syndrome, or for the state to provide funding for such an abortion.

The Government says the case should be dismissed on the grounds there is no evidence of a connection between the law and discrimination against those with Down’s syndrome and that it does not constitute “negative stereotyping”.

It will also say there are provisions in place to discourage disability discrimination, such as the guidance for doctors being that it is necessary to support women who choose to carry a pregnancy to term, even if there is a foetal abnormality, and that an abortion must be signed off by two doctors.

It said: “The Government as a whole is deeply committed to elimination disability discrimination. There is a broad range of measures in domestic law which are aimed at disability discrimination and advancing equality of opportunity.”

The hearing is set to conclude on Wednesday and it is expected the court will give its ruling at a later date.

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