Woman with Down’s syndrome seeks legal challenge to ‘discriminatory’ abortion law

A woman with Down’s syndrome plans to mount a legal challenge to legislation that allows for abortions up to birth for babies with the condition.

Heidi Crowter, 24, from Coventry, intends to pursue a judicial review because she believes current abortion law is discriminatory.

Most abortions in England, Wales and Scotland are carried out before 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Under the Abortion Act 1967, terminations can only happen beyond this period under specific circumstances, including if a baby has a fetal abnormality that could cause serious disability.

Ms Crowter (pictured) said: “What it says to me is that my life just isn’t as valuable as others, and I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s downright discrimination.”

She said she would take the Government to court to “make sure that people aren’t treated differently because of their disabilities”.

According to Department of Health and Social Care statistics, there were around 200,000 abortions in England and Wales in 2018, with nine out of 10 performed under 13 weeks of pregnancy.

Under the law all abortions must be approved by two doctors, and are permitted up to 24 weeks if it is judged that having the baby would pose a greater risk to the physical or mental health of a woman than if she had an abortion.

Terminations can be allowed after 24 weeks only under certain circumstances, such as if there is a risk to a woman’s life or 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”.

In 2018, there were 289 abortions where gestation was 24 weeks or longer.

Down’s syndrome is caused when a child inherits an extra copy of the 21 chromosome from its parents, meaning it has 47 chromosomes instead of the usual 46.

The condition, which can take varying forms, causes learning difficulties and health complications, but people can live active and independent lives.

The fetal abnormality justification for abortions at any gestation, known as “Ground E” saw 3,269 terminations made under it in 2018.

Congenital malformations were the main medical condition for nearly half of these, with Down’s Syndrome the most common chromosomal abnormality, accounting for 618 cases.

A screening for Down’s syndrome is offered from between 10 and 14 weeks of pregnancy, with counselling available to support people to make informed choices if abnormalities are detected.

Ms Crowter, teaming up with Cheryl Bilsborrow, from Preston, whose two-year-old son Hector has Down’s syndrome, has launched a crowdfunding webpage to raise £20,000 to develop her legal case.

It is being backed by actress and comedian Sally Phillips, whose son Ollie has Down’s syndrome, and campaign group Don’t Screen Us Out.

Ms Phillips, who fronted a BBC documentary about the condition in 2016, told The Times newspaper: “Given advances in medical care and quality of life for people with Down’s syndrome, the different right to life is beginning to look not just dated but barbaric.”

Solicitor Paul Conrathe, of Sinclairslaw, representing Ms Crowter and Ms Bilsborrow and her son, said: “This case addresses a matter that is fundamentally offensive and discriminatory – that unborn babies with a disability, and in this case Down’s syndrome, should be aborted up to birth.

“The current law reinforces negative stereotypes and attributes lesser value and dignity to people with disability.”

He said a letter had been sent to Health Secretary Matt Hancock demanding the current legal provision allowing abortions due to disabilities up to birth be amended, otherwise a judicial review will be sought.

But Jane Fisher, director of parent support charity Antenatal Results and Choices (ARC), warned that some conditions are not picked up until later in pregnancy.

She said the process of scans and tests offered to women if something of concern is spotted can bring them close to or beyond the 24-week cut off for most abortions.

Ms Fisher added: “If Ground E of the Abortion Act is removed for all but lethal conditions some women may decide to end their pregnancy before 24 weeks without waiting for further tests, fearing this option will be removed.

“It would put an untenable pressure on women at an already emotionally fraught time.”

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