Newspaper Article: ‘Discussions About Disability are Missing from the Irish Abortion Debate’

This is an article two of our founding members wrote in September 2017 – a year and a half before the referendum on abortion in Ireland. (The article was published in the University Times, one of the two student-run newspapers at Trinity College Dublin.)

Two years later, some of the questions it posed are as relevant as ever.

Many people are unhappy with abortion legislation which gives fetuses with a disability less protection than those that are considered ‘able-bodied’ (especially if they are given so little protection that there are no term limits on when a fetus can be aborted on grounds of disability). Many ‘middle-ground’ people who are squeamish about this are also uncomfortable with legislation that restricts abortion in cases of rape or incest.

But as we saw in the referendum last year, these middle-ground people often mobilise to vote and even advocate or campaign for pro-choice amendments that would legalise abortion in these limited circumstances. Sometimes, beliefs about these limited cases prompt people to vote for very permissive abortion regimes that allow abortion to take place for a much wider array of reasons. So why are they almost never mobilised to advocate for ‘pro-life’ amendments that would remove discrimination on grounds of disability? Why does discomfort about this so rarely lead to action?

Here is an extract from the article:

The 1967 UK Abortion Act prohibits most abortions after a gestational age of 24 weeks. Section 1(1)(d) of the act, however, provides that where the child would be “seriously handicapped” (what official UK abortion parlance terms “Ground E”), this limit does not apply. Abortions can, theoretically, take place up to birth.

In 2016, there were 3,208 abortions Ground E abortions in the UK, comprising about two per cent of the overall abortion figure. Two hundred and twenty five of these abortions happened at 24 weeks and over – over the limit for children without disabilities. Between 1995 and 2016, there has been a 263 per cent increase in Ground E abortions taking place after 24 weeks.

In their 2016 abortion report, the NHS warns that these figures “should be treated with caution”, as “it is likely that there is … a significant undercount”. In 2014, it was discovered that half of Ground E notifications to the NHS were missing. Despite some improvement, this pattern continues. These figures include what Irish abortion activists would term abortions for “fatal foetal abnormality”, such as anencephaly, contradicting arguments that the concepts of “fatal abnormality” and “disability” are never conflated. An examination of some of the other conditions that count as abortion-worthy disabilities in England and Wales is revealing: in 2016, nine abortions were for cleft lips and palates and 706 were carried out in the case of a Down’s Syndrome diagnosis.

It is very unlikely that only pro-life people care about this blatant discrimination. Do other people just not care enough, or is it that they are worried about being associated with us? What’s going on here?  Whatever the answer, the pro-choice movement in Ireland has made clear in the past their desire to downplay the brazen double standard that Ground E creates:

With the question of disability-selective abortion in Ireland, the pro-choice narrative hovers between denial and minimisation. The FAQ section of the Irish Abortion Rights Campaign website states that Ground E abortions are rare, because “only” one per cent of UK abortions are carried out on this basis.

These figures are from 2009. The page, according to its date stamp, was created in 2016. However, even counting these out-of-date and relatively low figures, in 2009, one per cent meant 2,085 abortions. The 136 of these that happened after 24 weeks gestation were a direct result of ableist discrimination and stigmatisation.

It is interesting to compare the amount of headlines generated from the pro-abortion comments of the UN Human Rights Committee with the complete lack of attention paid to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ less enthusiastic approach to abortion.

Both sides of the abortion debate are guilty of cherry-picking the evidence they choose to push. But when a UN body recommends that our closest neighbour changes an abortion law, and no one chooses to report on it, that speaks volumes. Not only about the dominance of pro-choice voices in media, but about our attitudes towards disabilities. “Only” a few thousand abortions are disability-selective. “Only” a few hundred of these were late term. Not worth reporting on. Not worth recording. To turn a blind eye to discrimination is often to collude in it.

The abortion debate that led to the repeal of the 8th Amendment is over now. But the question remains. Why are people who care so much about ableist discrimination in other contexts happy to turn a blind eye to this?

N.B. In June, we wrote about a decision made by a UK court which would have forced an intellectually disabled woman to have an abortion despite the fact that both her and her mother wanted to keep the baby. Though newspapers were a bit slow to pick up on the story, it was eventually reported on, and the decision was subsequently appealed. When we wrote the blog post in June, we thought that this would be another example of an injustice that both pro-life and pro-choice people would agree was intolerable, but feared that only pro-life news outlets, activists or politicians would do anything about it. Thankfully, it seems that that time we were wrong. This is hopeful: mobilising people on both sides of the abortion debate fight injustices like this isn’t *impossible*!

Ciara

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