The Christian Medical Fellowship, CARE in Northern Ireland and the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland have briefed Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) this week that they are deeply concerned by the possibility of a knee-jerk legislative response based on a misunderstanding of anencephaly, abortion and Northern Ireland's abortion law.
All three charities have warned MLAs that it would be almost impossible to legislate for abortion for specific cases of disability. There is little clinical and public consensus on the definition of 'serious' disability and they argue that evaluating whether a life is worth living is hugely subjective. They also agree that suggesting criteria for termination would create discrimination against a precisely defined group of people.
Chief Executive of the Christian Medical Fellowship, Dr Peter Saunders, said:
'A lack of understanding about anencephaly is currently being exploited by those seeking to change the law.'
'Changing the law in Northern Ireland to allow abortion for anencephaly would be very difficult and almost bound to have the effect of opening the door to the wider use of abortion in Northern Ireland. Abortion law in England and Wales which only permits abortion for 'serious' disability has been used to justify aborting on the basis of cleft palate and club foot!'
The charities are advocating for a greater awareness of perinatal hospice and palliative care for families whose babies' lives are expected to be brief. This approach supports families throughout the pregnancy and means babies can be treated with dignity, and can be loved and protected until death comes naturally.
Nola Leach, Chief Executive of CARE, said:
'Women should be offered genuine positive alternatives to abortion in cases of disability, which all too often is presented as the only option available. The incredible personal stories of families who have explored alternatives to abortion, such as perinatal hospice support, should be heard in this debate.'
'Giving families greater support through the option of perinatal hospice care from the point of diagnosis has been shown to make a real difference, for example in a British study, when parents were offered perinatal hospice as an alternative option, 40% percent chose to continue with their pregnancy. In a US study, when parents were given the option of perinatal hospice, the number rose to 75%.'
David Smyth, Public Policy Officer for Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, said:
'These tragic cases remind us of the need for compassion and wisdom as we engage in these solemn matters of life and death. We graciously but robustly challenge the view that abortion is the answer in these circumstances. We highlight the need for perinatal hospice, palliative care packages and counselling to be available to those who receive such news in future.'
The media coverage of this issue has prompted a number of women to share their own experiences of carrying a baby with anencephaly, or other life limiting condition, to term:
'Our first daughter had significant congenital abnormalities incompatible with life and we were offered termination as an option for her. We said that this was not something we would consider. To the credit of the doctors and midwives caring for us, it was never mentioned again and instead we were offered weekly viability scans to see if she was still alive. (She did die in utero.) We were treated with such compassion. We were never made to feel that we were wasting their time… It was a great comfort to us that, for however short her life was going to be, she was safe and warm in my womb where I could care for her…'
'I am a mother who carried my third child full term, despite a fatal diagnosis with congenital heart disease. I can fully empathise with all the agonies this poor mother in Northern Ireland is going through. However, I do not regret not having an abortion, and I hope that if my husband and I were ever in the same situation again, we would make the same decisions. We gave our baby the best life we could and have so many happy memories of his three days with us.'
'...I am currently 37+ weeks pregnant with an anencephalic baby in the US where 98% of these babies are aborted. As I approach my due date your article gave me the peace and closure I have been seeking since I found out about his condition in June and decided to carry him. We had a friend in May who was left nearly brain dead from a fall this past spring. It was inevitable that he would die - ultimately he did after bring removed from life support. When the doctors initially discovered the damage was the option given to actually kill him due to his prognosis!? Of course not that would be murder! Why then in the case of babies should it be OK?'
 Breeze et al, 2007
 D'Almeida et al, 2006
Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) was founded in 1949 and is an interdenominational organisation with over 5,000 doctors, 900medical and nursing students and 300 nurses and midwives as members in all branches of medicine, nursing and midwifery. A registered charity, it is linked to over 100 similar bodies in other countries throughout the world.
CMF exists to unite Christian healthcare professionals to pursue the highest ethical standards in Christian and professional life and to increase faith in Christ and acceptance of his ethical teaching.