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ss triple helix - spring 2017,  Lord Shinkwin's Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill

Lord Shinkwin's Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill

Protecting the most vulnerable

In May 2016, Lord Shinkwin's Private Member's Bill (1) sought the provision of equality within the 1967 Abortion Act, by changing the law to ensure that disability can no longer be given as a reason for termination at any gestation.
Lord Shinkwin and the 'We're All Equal' campaign cite the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act as a key base for their proposal, as statements on their website qualify:

'We're all equal. That's what the law says, isn't it? Wrong… legal and lethal discrimination on the grounds of disability have been a reality for almost 50 years…' (2)

Currently, under Section (1)(1)d pregnancies with 'physical or mental abnormalities causing serious handicap' can be terminated up until birth, whereas a limit of 24 weeks is set for 'able-bodied' babies. There were 3,216 abortions carried out on these grounds in England and Wales in 2015, including 1,046 over 20 weeks and 230 over 24 weeks. (3)
The Bill proposed by Lord Shinkwin is, however, not supported by the BMA, RCOG, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare or the British Maternal and Fetal Medicine Society. The BMA cites that 'it would be inhuman - and risk psychological harm - to make a woman carry a pregnancy to term when the fetus will not survive, if she does not want to'.

Lord Shinkwin feels it is a 'modest and reasonable' amendment and if passed is likely to have very little impact on the status quo. Women will still be able to opt for abortion up to term under sections 1(1)b and 1(1)c of the Abortion Act. LordShinkwin explains that passing his Bill will mean that the 'principle of disability discrimination itself would no longer be enshrined in law'.

The Bill has reached the report stage in the Lords but will not be granted any further days of debate so will now fall. Shinkwin's Bill follows the 'Don't Screen Us Out' campaign (DSUO)(4) that is calling for the government to halt the introduction of cell free fetal DNA, non invasive prenatal testing (cffDNA NIPT).

The 2013 National Down Syndrome Cytogenetic Register (NDSCR) report shows that 90% of babies who are prenatally diagnosed with Down's Syndrome are aborted. (5) DSUO argues that NIPT would enable increased selective elimination of children with Down's Syndrome. Rather, medical reforms in the areas of accommodation, inclusion and support for disability should be enacted prior to its implementation.

This all provides food for thought for healthcare professionals on both the provision of disability care in the UK and the rights of those with disabilities diagnosed prior to birth - as well as the age-old abortion debate, especially in viewof Diana Johnson's new termination Bill. (6)

The outcomes of these will speak volumes as to how we see and protect the most vulnerable people in society, as well as how we live out Christ's example of laying his life down for the weak. (7)

Review by Rachel Owusu-Ankomah CMF Associate Staffworker and junior doctor

  1. Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill. HL. 2016-17
  3. Abortion Statistics, England and Wales. 2015
  5. The National Down Syndrome Cytogenetic Register for England and Wales. Annual Report. 2013
  6. Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill. 2016-17
  7. Romans 5:6
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