Campaigners Lose High Court Challenge Over Down's Syndrome Abortion Law

Sian Harrison

September 23, 2021

Editor's note, 23 September 2021: This article was updated with additional comment from BPAS.

A woman with Down's syndrome has lost a High Court challenge against the Government over legislation which allows the abortion of babies with the condition up until birth.

Heidi Crowter, 26, from Coventry, is one of three claimants who brought legal action against the Department of Health and Social Care in the hope of removing a section of the Abortion Act they believe to be an "instance of inequality".

In England, Wales and Scotland there is a 24-week time limit on having an abortion.

But terminations can be allowed up until birth 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", which includes Down's syndrome.

At a 2-day hearing in July, lawyers representing the claimants argued the law is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and therefore unlawfully discriminatory.

But, in a ruling on Thursday, their case was dismissed by two senior judges, who concluded the legislation is not unlawful and aims to strike a balance between the rights of the unborn child and of women.

Lord Justice Singh and Mrs Justice Lieven said at the outset of the judgment: "The issues which have given rise to this claim are highly sensitive and sometimes controversial.

"They generate strong feelings, on all sides of the debate, including sincere differences of view about ethical and religious matters.

"This court cannot enter into those controversies; it must decide the case only in accordance with the law."

Appeal

Heidi Crowter said she was left “really upset” by the judgment but added: “I will keep on fighting “.

Maire Lea-Wilson said: “Today’s High Court judgment effectively says that my two sons are not viewed as equals in the eyes of the law and I am incredibly sad and disappointed that the court has chosen not to recognise the value and worth of people with Down’s syndrome, like my son Aidan."

Paul Conrathe, a solicitor at Sinclairslaw, who represented the three claimants, said his clients will seek to appeal.

He said: “This is a disappointing judgment that is out of step with modern attitudes to disability. As long ago as 2001, the Disability Rights Commission stated that the abortion legislation ‘is offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability’.

“The judgment fails to recognise the damaging impact UK abortion legislation has upon the mental health and wellbeing of people with Down’s syndrome.

“By allowing babies with Down’s syndrome to be aborted up to birth, unlike neurotypical babies, the law sends a powerful message that the lives of people with Down’s syndrome are of lesser value.

“My clients will be seeking permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal.”

BPAS 

Clare Murphy, chief executive of BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service), supported the verdict: "There is no contradiction between a society which champions the rights of disabled people and one which allows women to make difficult decisions in heartbreaking situations," she said in a statement.

"The legal challenge, which was dismissed by the High Court today, did not seek to revoke access to abortion care solely in cases of a diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome. The aim of this case was to remove women’s ability to end what are often much-wanted pregnancies post-24 weeks due to diagnoses of any “non-fatal” fetal anomalies. This would force women to continue pregnancies where there may be multiple complex conditions and outcomes are unclear. 

"If successful, this case could have had far-reaching implications. The claimants argued in Court that foetuses should have human rights – this has never been decided in law and would go against many years of legal precedent in the UK. It was a full-frontal attack on pregnant women’s rights, not just to abortion but to making their own decisions during childbirth.

"We need a legal framework which supports women’s choices to continue or end a pregnancy in these extremely challenging circumstances, and it is right that today’s court decision endorsed that."

This article contains information from PA Media.

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Lead Image: PA Media

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