downs syndrome abortion
Ethics & Morality

Abortion, Down’s and disability: CofE discriminates in favour of the beautiful soul

“People with Down’s Syndrome should be welcomed, celebrated and treated with dignity and respect, members of the Church of England’s General Synod will hear next month.” So began the email from the Church of England announcing the release of papers for the February (8th-10th) session of Synod. It continued:

A motion affirming the dignity and humanity of people born with Down’s Syndrome is to be discussed by the General Synod at its February sessions in London. It comes as a new form of prenatal screening, Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT), is set to be rolled out in the NHS to women deemed to be at ‘high-risk’ of having a child with Down’s syndrome.

The motion welcomes medical advances and calls for the Government and health professionals to ensure that women who have been told that their unborn child has Down’s Syndrome are given comprehensive, unbiased information on the condition.

It is a curious and confusing approach: the motion exhorts “the dignity and humanity of people born with Down’s Syndrome”, yet it manifestly concerns the screening of the unborn with Down’s Syndrome. What church does not treat Down’s people as people? Honestly, where in the Church of England are Down’s people not treated with dignity and respect?

Except when they’re in the womb, of course.

How can the Church of England look Down’s people in the eye while it sustains a rather blurred if not baffling approach to abortion? O, sure, there is the “clear and established policy”, as the paper Valuing People with Down’s Syndrome reminds us:

‘The Church of England combines strong opposition to abortion with a recognition that there can be – strictly limited – conditions under which it may be morally preferable to any available alternative’. ‘In the rare occasions when abortion is carried out beyond 24 weeks, ‘Serious foetal handicap’ should be interpreted strictly as applying to those conditions where survival is possible only for a very short period’.

And yet the Anglican praxis is apparently indistinguishable from the world’s belief. Consider the response of the Rev’d Dr Brendan McCarthy – the Church of England’s national adviser on medical ethics – in this featured newspaper article:

Note: “it obviously is the woman’s choice what to do with her pregnancy,” he says. O, sure, “our hope is that with full information.. blah, blah, blah; and with up-to-date information.. blah, blah, blah”, but it is obviously the woman’s choice what do with her pregnancy, the Church of England’s national adviser on medical ethics tells the world.

No, Dr McCarthy, the Church of England does not believe that abortion is simply a matter of “the woman’s choice”, not least because according to the 1967 Abortion Act two registered medical practitioners must be of the opinion, formed in good faith, “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”.

Of course, over the decades, this ‘seriously handicapped’ constraint has receded to just ‘handicapped’, and the definition of ‘handicapped’ has dwindled to having a cleft palate and hare lip, or even just being the wrong sex (ie female). A child may now be aborted up to 24 weeks for no real reason at all – other that he or she simply not being wanted – but if there are foetal abnormalities, however cosmetic, there is no time limit at all: the child may be killed in utero the day before it is due to be born, because there is no personhood, no humanity, and so no rights.

And this is manifestly tolerated by the Church of England: when did you last hear a bishop preach about the evil of abortion? Synod is routinely flooded with motions about gender, sex and sexuality, but when did you last hear one about the moral quality of abortion? When did Synod ever debate how we might better discriminate one abortion from another, hypothetical or actual? Where is the evaluation of the moral thought of the agent and her action? Where is the deliberation of the field of choice, character disposition or personality which inclines one toward abortion?

Women with disabled babies in their wombs are very much encouraged by abortion counsellors and medical practitioners to terminate their pregnancies, and that includes Down’s babies. The climate is such that for the woman to choose life, she must be mad to inflict herself with the suffering and burden the state with the additional costs. What does the Church of England do or say to obviate this? Where is the ‘pro-life’ counselling which underpins its “strong opposition to abortion”, to foster emotional stability and good mental health?

Society is rather manichæan when it comes to disability and abortion, and Down’s Syndrome is widely considered to be an undoubted tragedy and an undeniable inconvenience. So now the Church of England is making it clear that Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT), while not being intrinsically problematic, “the manner in which it is introduced, understood and administered has the potential to lead to major reductions of Down’s syndrome live births.”

This is unacceptable, they say, on the basis of:

Being Human in Christ

What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honour
(Psalm 8: 4,5).

There is no hierarchy in God’s love.

God’s love is for all of us, expressed supremely in Christ’s death and resurrection offered for the whole of humankind. Christ’s saving work is offered to everyone and his invitation to us is to respond to the best of our ability, whatever that may be. As outlined below, people with Down’s syndrome have as much to give and share as anyone – their strengths and contributions may sometimes be different from those of others, but they are not less significant or less worthy of cherishing.

…It is important that the church witnesses to the truth that our lives are in God’s hands as are our own hopes and ambitions both for ourselves and for those we love. Where great challenges are placed before individuals, it is vital that the Christian community witnesses to our human solidarity as children of God, offering love and practical assistance; not asking the most vulnerable to bear the burdens that should properly be borne by all.

If we affirm the love of God for all, we must cherish people with Down’s syndrome and their families so that they can flourish and be the gift to the community that God intends. Whilst celebrating technological advances that enable women to understand more about the development of their unborn children, an unintended consequence of this may be that, in the absence of full information about Down’s syndrome and the support now available for both parents and children, the perceived challenges of living with Down’s syndrome will result in more decisions to terminate. This, in spite of the growing social awareness that people with Down’s syndrome are indeed fully human: in Christian terminology, made in God’s image.

Are not all disabled people fully human and made in God’s image? Why single out one disability when thousands of other disabled babies are sliced or sucked out of the womb and incinerated every year? Is it easier for the Church of England to apprehend the image of God in the beautiful souls and smiley faces of Down’s people than in those who are tortured and twisted with spastic diplegia or spina bifida?

We live in a culture where disabled babies are worth less than perfectly-formed ones. It is surely for the Church to impress upon the world that each and every one of them is made in the image of God, and that this trumps the primacy of “the woman’s choice”. To issue a booklet which is concerned with valuing people with Down’s Syndrome is manifestly and arbitrarily discriminatory, and needs to be followed through (logically) with a booklet about valuing all disabled people including those in the womb.