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Campaigner with Down’s Syndrome vows to ‘keep fighting’ following UK abortion ruling

A prominent disability rights activists has thanked the British public for throwing their support behind a court of appeal challenge over late-term abortions of babies with disabilities.

On Friday, the Court of Appeal upheld legislation which permits babies prenatally diagnosed with Down’s syndrome to be aborted until birth, after a challenge was taken by Heidi Crowter (27), a campaigner who has the chromosomal condition. 

Ms Crowter, from Coventry, brought legal action against the Department of Health and Social Care with the aim of removing a section of the Abortion Act.

Judges ruled last September the legislation was not unlawful, but the case was reconsidered by the Court of Appeal at a hearing in July.

In a summary of the decision, by Lord Justice Underhill, Lady Justice Thirlwall and Lord Justice Peter Jackson, the judges said the Act does not interfere with the rights of the “living disabled”.

They outlined: “The court recognises that many people with Down’s syndrome and other disabilities will be upset and offended by the fact that a diagnosis of serious disability during pregnancy is treated by the law as a justification for termination, and that they may regard it as implying that their own lives are of lesser value.

“But it holds that a perception that that is what the law implies is not by itself enough to give rise to an interference with Article 8 rights (to private and family life, enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights).”

Ms Crowter brought the case alongside Máire Lea-Wilson, whose young son Aidan also has Down’s syndrome.  They argued that allowing abortion up to birth on the basis of disability is a form of severe discrimination which stigmatises those who are living with a disability. 

However, on Friday, three senior judges ruled against Ms Crowter and Ms Lea-Wilson, as they dismissed the appeal, adding that abortion laws were for parliament to decide upon.

Reacting to the news, Ms Crowter said she was “distraught” – adding that Britain’s abortion law which routinely permits the abortion of babies with conditions including Down’s syndrome without time limit – made her feel as though people like her “should be extinct”. She also expressed gratitude to the thousands who have supported her long-running campaign and legal case, saying a huge thank you to those who left supportive comments, some of which brought her to tears. 

Following the ruling, an emotional Ms Crowter asked parents of children with Down’s syndrome, many of whom had been following the legal case closely, to share photos of their children to shout their worth.

One parent of a child with the condition, posting on their Facebook page ‘Little E Blog’, said the outcome of the case had left them “reeling”, as they vowed to “keep fighting” until babies with Down’s syndrome gain increased protections in the womb.

“We are still reeling from the result of yesterday’s appeal… Can’t believe my baby girl didn’t have a right in till she was born out the birth canal.

“That she doesn’t have the same rights as any other baby… if she wasn’t ‘disabled’ she has rights but because she is she doesn’t…A baby can be aborted till 24 weeks but if they are disabled, they can be aborted till birth… it’s just not right!

“We will keep fighting and hopefully Elouise will see a world where a baby like her has the same rights of any other baby in the womb”.

Many said that while Heidi had not been successful on this occasion, the campaigner has already done a vast amount of work to change perceptions and help erase stigma surrounding Down’s syndrome.

“Thank you for your advocacy, we are so grateful for all you have done and how you are speaking up. So sorry to hear the result, the judges have got it so wrong, shocking that it hasn’t changed. You have done so much to change views that you should be proud of yourself!” one user wrote.

Speaking to Sky News outside the court of appeal, Ms Crowter said she was initially “distraught” by the ruling – but reaffirmed her commitment to keep fighting for the rights of unborn babies with a disability.

“I am very upset not to win again, but I will keep on fighting because we have already informed and changed hearts and minds and changed people’s opinions about the law,” she told journalists.

“My first reaction was I was absolutely distraught […] They said that my views don’t matter, when [they do], because I am someone who has Down’s Syndrome”.

When asked how she felt that it is legal to abort a baby with Down’s syndrome up to nine months gestation, Ms Crowter admitted: “It makes me feel that I shouldn’t be here, that I should be extinct. I know that’s not true, but it’s how it makes me feel”.

The campaigner said she was “flabbergasted” that the law protects babies without Down’s syndrome, but not those with the condition. Currently, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks in the UK – but extends up to full-term when an unborn child has been diagnosed with a disability.

Ms Crowter said that thanks to the court case, many more people in Britain are aware of the reality of abortion legislation.

“When we first started this court case not many people knew about the law, but now many, many people know about the law thanks to us and your amazing support.

“We want to thank everyone who has donated their time and money to our court case.”

The 27-year-old, however, criticised the lack of backing she received from the Down Syndrome Association, the national charity for people with Down’s syndrome, who she said failed to support the appeal court ruling on Friday.

“People came from Scotland, Wales, Coventry and Dorset but the Down syndrome association couldn’t even travel for an hour to support me.  Next time you want to raise money for a charity please support Don’t Screen Us Out or Positive About Down Syndrome,” she said.

Liz Crowter, Heidi’s mother also spoke to media, saying she was “devastated” by the thinking behind the ruling.

“We’re just absolutely devastated that judges can think that Heidi’s views don’t matter, and the views of other people with Down’s syndrome and other disabilities”. Ms Crowter said. She said she was hugely saddened by the fact babies with Down’s syndrome can be aborted up to the moment of birth – while if they were born five minutes later, they would be given the same protection as anyone else.

Jason Coppell KC, who represented Ms Crowter and Maire Lea-Wilson, highlighted the impact of the UK’s abortion law, telling the court back in July: “Its effect is to stereotype life as a disabled, or seriously handicapped, person as not worth living and certainly as having less value than life as an able-bodied person, thereby impacting on the feelings of self-worth and self-confidence of disabled persons, such as Ms Crowter.”

A defiant Ms Crowter says she hopes to launch an appeal at the Supreme Court following Friday’s ruling.

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