Towards the end of last week, due to events in Alabama, I felt it necessary to clarify my beliefs on abortion, not just because I found a post of mine had been taken out of context and retweeted by a couple of Trump supporters (one of the verminous blighters followed me as well), but also to get things straight in my own head. The issue of abortion is far more complicated than simply Pro-life vs. Pro-choice.
So I pinned a quick tweet to my profile which read: ‘Please note: I’m not anti-abortion. There are many circumstances in which women must be able to access abortion. But I believe that genetic screening programmes routinely offered to pregnant women discriminate against certain population groups, notably people with Down’s Syndrome.’ That’s about all I could say in a single tweet.
Basically I am neither completely pro-life nor completely pro-choice. What I am is anti-discrimination.
Genetic screening programmes such as NIPT are designed solely to detect foetuses with certain chromosomal differences/conditions, such as Down’s Syndrome, so that their mothers can be offered a termination. The screening offers no health benefits to either the foetus or the mother. Down’s Syndrome itself is not life-threatening to either mother or baby, there is no ‘cure’ or treatment that can be offered, and Down’s Syndrome is not, in itself, a health condition (although there is an increased likelihood of certain medical conditions occurring, none of them are inevitable, and almost all are also found in the general population, and are treatable or manageable). Down’s Syndrome itself does not cause pain or suffering. Screening does not decrease mortality, in fact it increases infant mortality when the numbers of foetuses aborted following prenatal diagnosis are taken into account. By all the laws that apply to other conditions, other human beings, we should not be screening for it.
The fact that we do screen for it, despite all this, is discrimination. Especially when the screening process is underpinned by negatively-biased information and directive advice given by healthcare professionals to expectant parents, as so often happens in the UK. When women are being pressured into screening by being told that it is ‘required’ rather than simply ‘available’ should they want it, when, in the event of a positive screening result, expectant mothers are routinely being offered termination of a planned/wanted pregnancy even if they haven’t requested one, and when women are repeatedly asked to consider termination even after they have expressed the intention to continue with an affected pregnancy, then it becomes not just a policy of deliberate discrimination against babies with Down’s Syndrome, it becomes a policy that is anti-woman, because it seeks to manipulate the expectant mother’s choices and steer them towards a particular, socially-approved, course of action. It becomes a covert form of coercive control; it is Eugenics in action.
When such discrimination is allowed before birth it has a knock-on effect on those already living with the screened-for condition. Just ask the disabled individuals who have had the words ‘you should have been aborted’ hurled at them, not just by anonymous online trolls hiding behind a computer screen, but openly, in the street, spat at them by people whose faces they can see, whose hostility is a palpable physical force. Nor does it stop with insults – a society that sees abortion as the answer to disability pretty soon convinces itself that there is no longer any need to make provision or reasonable adjustments for disabled people as, it tells itself, they are under no obligation to consider the needs of people who should never have been born in the first place (consider the legal phrase ‘Wrongful Birth Suit’). Disabled people then become, in effect, second-class citizens, dehumanised and disenfranchised by a society which is encouraged to see them as disposable and, therefore, ascribes no value to their lives.
In a world where disabled people are valued so little, and those with learning disability least of all, the very same people who are seeking to prevent women from accessing abortion when they need it could just as easily decide that abortion should be compulsory under certain circumstances, regardless of the mother’s wishes, such as if the foetus were to ‘fail’ the genetic screening process.
These two apparently contrary attitudes could very easily co-exist. My older children attended a Roman Catholic school that, in accordance with the teachings of the church, told the children in Sex Ed class that contraception and abortion were wrong, so abstinence should be practised, but in R.E. appeared to be teaching that abortion was acceptable in cases of prenatal diagnosis.
I know – all this sounds a bit ‘crazy conspiracy theory’, a bit ‘dystopian future fantasy’ … until it happens. I never thought that in my lifetime I would see women threatened with jail for ending a pregnancy that resulted from rape. I never thought I’d see women being jailed for suffering a spontaneous miscarriage. But both are happening now. Compulsory euthanising of certain disabled people has already happened in the past — can you imagine what the Nazis would have done with genetic screening technology if it had been available to them?
In the Netherlands all chromosomal anomalies arising on the 23rd chromosome (the sex chromosome) have been excluded from NIPT screening programmes following intense lobbying from the LGBTQI community, who successfully argued that selective abortion of babies with intersex conditions is discrimination. They are also lobbying the UN for extra protections, so hopefully this exclusion from testing will become more widespread. I believe that it is imperative that we in the UK should lobby for the necessary changes to legislation that would extend the same protection to people with Down’s Syndrome and exclude the condition from NIPT screening programmes. Legislation is necessary because it is apparent that no amount of awareness-raising or uplifting, positive parent advocacy has any material effect on public attitudes in the long run.
This does not make me anti-abortion or anti-woman. As I stated above, I believe there are many circumstances in which women must be able to access abortion, in an affordable, safe, and timely way, and not be stigmatised or criminalised for doing so. But I also believe that in the fight to ensure that women have the right to reproductive and bodily autonomy, we must ensure that we do not allow the rights of other population groups to be trampled underfoot.