Now it’s time to equalise protections in the womb | James Mildred
Landmark legislation designed to increase the rights of people with Down’s Syndrome has been warmly welcomed by campaigners. The Down Syndrome Bill, sponsored by Liam Fox MP and backed by the UK Government, will see people with the condition recognised as a specific minority group and legally entitled to the support they need from public bodies.
The law will apply to any public body that provides services to disabled people throughout their life. It mirrors the Autism Act of 2009 which made sure services met the specific needs of people on the autism spectrum. Actor Tommy Jessop, who supports the bill, believes it will embolden people with Down’s Syndrome to “speak up about what they really want” and “show what they are truly capable of”.
The bill is likely to achieve wide support in parliament, across political divides –a rarity in our modern political discourse. As campaigners for greater protections for people with disabilities, we hope this cross-party consensus will lead to the eventual legislation being as positive and ambitious as it can be, correcting a long history of inaction on behalf of the Down’s Syndrome community.
We also hope that it will inspire further positive change. As politicians consider a bill bolstering protections for the Down’s syndrome community, we are keenly aware that tailored support services are not the only inequality this community faces. One of the worst, and most high-profile inequalities raised by people with Down’s Syndrome is discrimination that occurs before they are born.
Campaigner Heidi Crowter is leading the charge for reform of abortion laws in England and Wales that allow children with a ‘serious handicap’ to be aborted up to term, but babies without any handicap up to 24 weeks. The ‘serious handicap’ provisions apply to people with Down’s Syndrome and other disabilities, including cleft palate. In Heidi’s words, it is “downright discrimination”, implying that the worth of people with disabilities is different to that of other citizens.
Heidi is fronting a legal challenge of abortion laws heard in the High Court earlier this year. Sadly, judges rejected the arguments of her legal team at this first hurdle, although they intend to appeal. Explaining her devastation at the High Court defeat, she wrote: “I was so upset. I cannot understand why the judges feel that we are not equal to other people. That’s all I want – for unborn babies with Down’s syndrome to have the same rights as everyone else.”
She remains resolute, though: “The fight is not over. The verdict doesn’t change how I and thousands of people in the Down’s syndrome community feel…Now, I feel more determined than ever and we plan to appeal the decision. It is discrimination. I strongly feel the law affects the way people with disabilities view themselves and helps create negative stereotypes. I won’t stop until we are recognised as equal members of society.”
As politicians rightly row in behind new legislation to ensure people with Down’s Syndrome enjoy better equality outside the womb, they must not overlook the irony of existing laws that cement inequality inside it. Parliament can challenge this discrimination in abortion law – regardless of the views of judges – by striking down disability provisions. We urge them to do so.
James Mildred is Chief Communications Officer at the charity CARE.