Abortion and the disabled


  • The grounds on which an abortion can be performed are laid down in the Abortion Act 1967, as amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990.
  • While the general limit for a legal abortion is 24 weeks gestation, under certain circumstances there is no time limit. These circumstances include a threat to the mother’s life.
  • Abortion can also be performed up to birth when a doctor believes “that 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.”1
  • There is no need for a doctor to justify his decision by specifying which serious handicap he believes the child would have suffered from.
  • In reality there is a wide variety of opinions amongst doctors as to what constitutes a “serious handicap”. Pro-life organisations argue that relatively minor disabilities such as missing fingers, club foot or a cleft palate have been deemed to fall within the definition.
  • In 1990 there was an attempt to tighten up the law to require doctors to specify the handicap for which they are aborting a child.2

Key points

It is wrong to abort babies just for being disabled. A disabled child has no less right to life than any other child.

An intention of the Equality Act 2010 is to prevent one person from treating another less favourably because of their disability. Allowing abortion up to birth on the grounds of disability is discriminatory and clearly contrary to the spirit of the Act.

As Fiona Bruce MP has asked: “If we do not consider a disabled person of inferior worth after birth, why do so before?”3

The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) has stated that Ground E:

“…is offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability and there is substantial support for the view that to permit terminations at any point during a pregnancy on the ground of risk of disability, while time limits apply to other grounds set out in the Abortion Act, is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally”.4

In their evidence to the 2013 Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion on the Grounds of Disability, the Christian Medical Fellowship said:

“…improvements in fetal medicine, neonatal intensive care, palliative care, paediatric surgery, educational care, community support and changes in attitudes to people with disabilities have led to conditions that previously may have been considered grounds for abortion now being treatable, curable or amenable to palliative care and support”.

Requiring doctors to specify the handicap for which they are aborting a child is not a particularly onerous requirement. Either there is a ‘substantial risk’ that the child is handicapped or there is not. If there is such a risk then it can be quantified and recorded to prove that the law is being complied with. If the doctor cannot do this then he cannot legally perform the abortion.

When the attempt was made in Parliament to require the handicap to be specified, babies were being aborted for minor defects. They still are. Requiring the handicap to be specified would at least prevent this by forcing the doctor to certify that the handicap is serious and the risk substantial.

  1. 1Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, Section 37(1) (d)
  2. 2House of Commons, Hansard, 21 June 1990, col. 1189
  3. 3House of Commons, Hansard, 9 April 2014, col. 388
  4. 4BBC News, 21 August 2001, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1502827.stm as at 29 September 2014