At the heart of our pro-life plege, we emphasise our desire to reject all unjust discrimination:

‘We pledge to reject racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and religious bigotry, and all unjust discrimination.’

Thus, given that today is World Down Syndrome Day, it is entirely appropriate for us to acknowledge the ableism and discrimination faced by people who have Down Syndrome – both before and after birth. 

For us as pro-life advocates, the suggestion that we are exploiting people with Down Syndrome as a kind of pawn in the broader abortion debate is both offensive and untrue for a couple of reasons.

First, for us to be consistent pro-life advocates, injustice anywhere requires our attention, especially when such injustice begins before birth.

Second, some people with Down Syndrome have clearly and emphatically spoken out on this issue – and their voices deserve to be heard. Activists and speakers such as Karen Gaffney, Heidi Crowter, Frank Stephens and Charlie Fien have articulated how abortion in particular perpetuates discrimination towards people with Down Syndrome. We want to add our voice to theirs.

Injustice in Europe

The injustice faced by people with Down Syndrome before they are born has been the focus of media attention in recent years. Last year, BBC News reported the huge pressure some parents are placed under to abort their unborn child with Down Syndrome. Actress Sally Phillips (who self-describes as pro-choice) starred in the BBC docmentary A World Without Down’s Syndrome?. In it she highlighted how certain European countries are supposedly on the verge of becoming ‘Down Syndrome free’, due to the increasing prevalence of genetic screening during pregnancy. However, these countries are not creating Down Syndrome free societies by removing the chromosomal differences that cause Down Syndrome – but by eliminating people with Down Syndrome. This is not a minor nuance – it’s a distinction of life or death. 

In Denmark for example, at least 95% of people with Down Syndrome have their lives ended before they are born. 

Some progress

Closer to home, this week a first step was taken to eliminate legal prejudice against people with Down Syndrome on this island when a bill to ban abortion on the grounds of non-fatal disability passed the second stage in the NI Assembly. In the North of Ireland, having a serious disability (including Down Syndrome) is an explicit ground (per Regulation 7b) for abortion up till birth. Whilst this bill to remove Regulation 7b doesn’t address other disability-related issues that might need political intervention, it does remedy an egregious inconsistency in the current law in NI which leaves preborn people with disabilities less equal than other babies. Pro-choice Alliance Party MLA Paula Bradshaw claimed during the debate that ‘If we are genuine about the disability rights issues that have been legitimately raised by Heidi Crowter and others, the bill, on those grounds alone, will clearly not deliver.’ However, the deliberately narrow focus of this bill shouldn’t be used as an excuse for pro-choice politicians to vote against it. Any removal of discrimination in law, now matter how narrow in scope, should be welcomed and supported. 

As another MLA  in the Assembly debate noted:

‘Here, in the bill, we are talking about a very modest step to deal with one specific and discrete aspect of the abomination of abortion. It is just one aspect, yet it infuriates those who defend and promote abortion that the House would dare to even think of protecting Down’s syndrome babies or those with other classifications of serious impairment.’

We have previously blogged about our strong support for a change to the law in Northern Ireland to eliminate this naked prejudice. Not only do such preborn babies with Down Syndrome have reduced legal rights in comparison with born humans, but they are singled out as part of a group which allows them to be killed right up till birth. As we said after the bill to change the law was introduced:

Groups like Don’t Screen Us Out have sought to bring the issue of disability discrimination and abortion into the public consciousness in recent years. If being pro-life means highlighting injustice anywhere (including before and after birth), then the public awareness bills like this create is an inherently good thing. 

The UK’s abortion law specifically singles out unborn babies with disabilities as having even fewer rights than other unborn children. This is abhorrent, and discriminatory. The provisional solution being sought to alleviate this problem in NI is not to extend abortion rights, but to restrict them.

A day to celebrate 

If society at large is to be truly inclusive, and we are to be consistent in our pro-life advocacy, then injustice everywhere must be opposed. Today, of all days, it is only right for us to draw attention to the prejudice and discrimination faced by people with Down Syndrome, both before and after birth. We draw attention to this not because we want to further our own agenda, but to celebrate our friends, family members and others in our society who have Down Syndrome, and who make a positive impact in our world – all whilst living with the challenges accompanied by having an extra chromosome. 

We’ll end with this video, which gives another very practical example of how society can become more inclusive of people with Down Syndrome.