Our approach to abortion and disability is contradictory

In 6th week, Oxford held a Disability Awareness Week to help students find out about what disabilities mean to students in Oxford. It is an important thing: 9.8% of Oxford students currently have a declared disability, and it is encouraging to see more being done to raise awareness and support. On a national scale, the NUS has campaigned against discrimination, highlighting the fact that one third of disabled people between the ages of16-24 feel they have been discouraged because of their disabilities. But, I wonder, are our valuable efforts to tackle this feeling of discrimination being undermined by this country’s attitudes to abortion?

In 1990, the UK Parliament amended the 1967 Abortion Act so that abortion can now be performed at any stage in pregnancy, up to and including term, if ‘there is a substantial risk that if the child was born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped’. The wording is deliberately vague, allowing considerable latitude for interpretation by doctors and lawyers of what constitutes a ‘serious handicap’. In 2003, Joanna Jepson, after researching government abortion statistics, highlighted a case of late feticide carried out at twenty-eight weeks in a foetus with cleft lip and palate, which is a gap in the lip and upper mouth. This condition is easily treatable with surgery, leading to no complications and normal speech. She asked the High Court to declare that this did not constitute a serious handicap in the context of the Abortion Act, but the Crown Prosecution Service declined to continue the case. I have friends with congenital amputations (parts of an arm missing) and mental illnesses, and I wonder how they must feel about this.

It was wonderful to see, even though my little brother was born dangerously prematurely after 26 weeks of pregnancy, that he was kept alive and well by a fantastic neonatal team. But our attitudes to abortion have led to surreal situations in major NHS hospitals like Oxford’s John Radcliffe. In one operating theatre a group of highly trained professionals are engaged in a sophisticated medical procedure, the sole aim of which is to salvage an unborn baby whose life is seen as precious and uniquely valuable. Yet in the adjacent operating theatre a group of highly trained professionals are engaged in a sophisticated medical procedure with the sole aim of destroying an identical unborn baby who is seen as disposable, and whose life has been rejected by both parents and society. The two operating theatres are functioning under two mutually contradictory ethical traditions. One worldview has been held by much of the world throughout history: by the Greeks, Romans, and much of the East. It has recently been revived in the West, with Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University a leading proponent. He says we should recognise that the worth of human life varies. Singer argues that “we should treat humans in accordance with their ethically relevant characteristics”, including the capacity for physical, social and mental interaction.

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The inevitable conclusion from this argument is that society consists of a hierarchy –the Scholar and Blue’s Player, then the ordinary adult students, then the non-persons: babies, the brain-damaged, the mentally disabled, Alzheimer’s sufferers. All of us fit somewhere in the pecking order, and the value of life goes up or down according to the passage of events. I am deeply uncomfortable with this world view, yet it is prevalent in our society. Following this materialistic worldview to its conclusion, Singer concludes that ultimately both abortion and infanticide are acceptable options. To Singer, it is inexplicable that we are prepared to abort a foetus with Down’s Syndrome, but are not prepared to kill a new-born baby with the same condition.

In vivid contrast to this is the understanding of human rights explicitly founded upon the Judeo-Christian worldview: that humans are made in God’s image, and thus have a unique dignity and an incalculable value. Therefore we are all equal. Males are equal to females, adults equal to children, the disabled equal to the healthy. God himself has placed his image within each of us and so it follows that we respect and care for one another as fellow image-bearers.

But what of the mother’s right to choose what she wants? Shouldn’t people be free to make their own decisions? This autonomy is the basis of the ethics that I am taught as a medical student. I respond, are we really autonomous? Do the decisions we make based on our understanding of the value of life really make no practical difference to other people? Is society just a collection of private individuals doing their own thing? The fact that disabled individuals have protested against the abortion of affected foetuses is evidence that this is an inadequate view of both society and of the value of human life. And yet until we recover the Judeo-Christian understanding of human value and dignity, which flows from a theistic world view, we will be living a contradiction: saying that we support the rights of disabled students, yet undermining that support with our attitude to disabled foetuses.