Speaking up before the blow falls

Speaking up before the blow falls British actress Sally Phillips with her son, Olly, featured in 'A World Without Down's Syndrome?' on BBC TV.
We cannot be silent about aborting babies with disabilities, writes David Quinn


The issue of Down syndrome has featured fairly prominently in the abortion debate so far and is likely to feature more prominently in the weeks to come. The reason is simple; huge numbers of babies diagnosed with Down syndrome (DS) are aborted.

Denmark is a prime example. In Denmark, there is a national screening programme for disabilities like DS and almost every pregnant woman avails of it. When a woman is told her baby has DS, there is an average 98% chance that she will opt for an abortion, a horrifying statistic.

With very rare exceptions, the only babies with DS who are born in Denmark are those who were not screened while still in the womb. About 15% are not screened prior to birth.

Denmark and Iceland are the two worst examples in Europe, but Britain and France also have frighteningly high rates of abortion of children with DS.


Last week, there was an important intervention in the abortion debate by Down syndrome Ireland, the major charity that helps people with DS and their parents.

The statement asked that the issue of DS be left out of the debate. It said: “We are respectfully asking both sides of the campaign debate, all political parties and any other interested groups to stop exploiting children and adults with DS to promote their campaign views.

“We would also like to remind campaigners on both sides of the debate that people with Down syndrome listen to the news and read media articles, including social media content. We ask that the tone of the debate is respectful towards all people with disabilities.”

In truth, this statement was really directed at pro-life advocates because pro-choice advocates have not raised the issue of Down syndrome at all. The reason they haven’t is because it does not suit them. They do not want the public to know what is happening in countries like Denmark, Iceland and the UK.

How should the pro-life movement respond to the Down syndrome Ireland statement? Should we leave the issue of Down syndrome out of the debate? I don’t believe we can, and very importantly neither do other parents of children with DS, and people who have DS themselves.

For example, Anne Trainer, who has a son, Kevin, with DS, is extremely concerned that so many babies with this condition are being aborted internationally. She said so in an article in thejournal.ie last year.

She wrote: “I believe the debate on the Eighth Amendment needs to hear from families like mine. People like Kevin are not here just to give us warm and cosy feelings during the Special Olympics. Their lives matter. Their human right to life matters. Children like Kevin are facing extinction in other countries.”

Parents like Anne have every right to speak out in this debate, despite the statement from Down syndrome Ireland.

In Britain, there is a group called Don’t Screen Us Out that consists of parents of children with DS and of people with DS, and they highlight the mass aborting of babies with Down syndrome.

There is another group called Down Pride, led by a Dutch woman named Renate Lindeman. It is similar in nature to Don’t Screen Us Out.

A young woman with DS named Charlotte Fien has addressed a UN committee to object to aborting people like her.

A young man with DS, Frank Stephens, recently addressed a Congressional committee in the US on the same topic.

Other examples can be given. The point is that many parents of children with DS, and those who have DS themselves, do not object to the issue of Down syndrome being raised in abortion debates.

It will be countered that the Oireachtas abortion committee has not recommended that disabilities like Down Syndrome be a ground for abortion. This is true, but also misleading because it will not prevent the aborting of babies with non-fatal disabilities like DS.

In Germany, disabilities of any kind are not a specific ground for abortion but many children with disabilities are aborted in any case. They are aborted under the ‘mental health’ of the mother ground.

The recommendations of the abortion committee are that abortion be allowed for any reason up to 12 weeks (which is when about 90% of abortions take place), and after that on various grounds, including the mental health ground, theoretically right up to birth.

In the UK, roughly 97% of the almost 200,000 abortions which take place there each year are performed on grounds of ‘mental health’. If a perfectly healthy baby can easily be aborted for this reason, so can a baby with a disability.

In other words, don’t be fooled into thinking that the aborting of babies with disabilities will be forbidden under the recommendations of the abortion committee. That is very far from being the case.

Also, don’t be fooled into thinking that the 12-weeks cut-off for abortion on any grounds will be an obstacle to aborting babies with disabilities. It will not. As mentioned, they are aborted in Germany under the ‘mental health’ ground.

Doctors like Peter Boylan say we ought to ‘trust’ doctors. Presumably he would consider Danish doctors to be trustworthy, and yet in Denmark the overwhelming majority of babies with detectable disabilities are aborted. Therefore, the ‘trustworthiness’ of doctors offers these babies no protection.

Finally, there are those who object to us saying that aborting the disabled is a form of eugenics. Eugenics means ‘well born’. It is the philosophy which says that only those who are able of body and mind should be born. If aborting the disabled, precisely because of their disability is not eugenics, then nothing is. We cannot be silent about this. We have a moral duty to object.

David Quinn is author of How we Killed God (and other tales of modern Ireland). Publisher: Currach Press.

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