Sun May 6, 2004 23:30:03 ET
Those with conditions that can usually be corrected medically – such as deformed feet and cleft lips and palates – are instead being terminated.
And the number of abortions of Down’s syndrome babies now outstrips live births, despite the fact that those with the condition can live a long and fulfilling life. As screening techniques improve, the trend is likely to grow – horrifying pro-life campaigners.
“‘These figures are symptomatic of a eugenic trend of the consumerist society hell-bent on obliterating deformity – and at what cost to its own humanity? ‘ said ethicist Jacqueline Laing, of London Metropolitan University. ‘We are obliterating the willingness of people to accept disability. Babies are required to fit a description of normality before they are allowed to be born.’
The figures for 2002 – the latest available – from the Office for National Statistics show more women than ever are choosing to terminate babies with potential handicaps, with such abortions rising 8 per cent in a year.
It has renewed fears that strict laws on termination due to disabilities are being flouted by doctors.
The 2002 figures show five babies were aborted because they had deformed feet, and a sixth because of a cleft lip and palate.
In 2000 and 2001, nine babies were aborted due to cleft lip and palate, while a further two were aborted for cleft lip alone.
Church of England curate Joanna Jepson, who has spearheaded calls for an investigation into the abortion of a 28-week-old unborn baby with cleft palate in Herefordshire in 2001, said: ‘These statistics are horrifying and show the highly consumerist attitude which is now pervading human relationships.
‘I don’t think anyone had any idea that so many babies had been aborted for cleft lip and palate. The fact that two were aborted for cleft lip alone is a slur on people with the condition.
‘I cannot believe the medical profession are standing by decisions to abort babies for these reasons.’
Delayed motherhood may be partly responsible for rising birth defects, because women over 40 have the highest risk of congenital abnormality in their babies.
Doctors say improvements in technology, such as ultra-sound and blood tests, have helped increase the number of babies diagnosed with abnormality before birth. But a number are disturbed that abortions are being carried out on the grounds of the baby’s serious disability when in fact it has a correctable condition such as feet abnormality or cleft lip.
Ground E of the Abortion Act makes termination legal up to nine months if a child has a serious risk of physical or mental abnormality.
A total of 1,863 pregnancies were ended in 2002 on this basis – up 8 per cent from the 1,722 carried out in 2001, according to ONS data from the National Congenital Anomaly System.
Experts say it is likely that many exceeded the 24-week limit for terminations for socalled ‘social’ reasons. Most of the estimated 185,000 abortions in Britain every year are on ‘social’ grounds.
Two doctors must judge that the risk to the woman’s physical or mental health of continuing the pregnancy outweighs the dangers of termination.
In reality, this means women who do not want to have a baby are able to easily terminate it. Only around one per cent of abortions are carried out beyond the 24-week limit, generally due to deformities.
Terminations for chromosomal abnormalities, including Down’s syndrome, rose by 17 per cent – from 591 in 2001 to 691 in 2002.
There were more babies with Down’s aborted than born with the condition in 2002, with 372 terminations compared with 329 births.
The NHS was last year told to offer Down’s screening to women of all ages – including those in younger age groups with lower risks of the condition – prompting fears that figures for last year will be even higher.
The charity LIFE said it fears women may come under increased pressure if their unborn babies are judged to have special needs.
Trustee Nuala Scarisbrick said: ‘This is straightforward eugenics. The message is being sent out to disabled people that they should not have been born. It is appalling and abhorrent.’
Campaigner Patrick Cusworth said: ‘Such statistics are an indictment of a society which places a conditional value upon its citizens, based upon how “useful” they may prove to be in later life.’
Consultant obstetrician Maggie Blott said although the reasons for the increase in Ground E abortions are not clear, it may be partly due to screening and partly to older mothers.
Women aged 40 to 44 have the highest rate of abnormalities such as spina bifida, heart defects and Down’s syndrome in live and still births, at 160 per 10,000. This compares with 107 per 10,000 in those aged 25 to 27.
Mrs Blott, of the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne, said: ‘You have to give women a choice and most people feel screening is a good thing.
‘If a baby with a heart problem is diagnosed before birth, doctors can be ready when it is born and ensure it gets the best treatment.
‘Some serious abnormalities do not become apparent on ultrasound until later in the pregnancy – these include some kidney problems.
‘It is likely that most of the abortions in this report were after 24 weeks, because before that, you could get an abortion without needing a reason such as a physical deformity.
‘I personally don’t think cleft lip counts as a serious abnormality. The Abortion Act is very clear that is has to be life-threatening really, and nobody could describe a cleft lip as life-threatening. The same goes for deformities of the feet.’
Anne Weyman, chief executive of the Family Planning Association, said techniques to detect foetal abnormalities have become very sophisticated, giving women more information on which to base decisions.
‘Ending a wanted pregnancy because of serious foetal abnormality is a difficult decision for the woman,’ she added. ‘It is vital she receives support and guidance to make the right decision for her and her family.’