‘This law makes me feel I am better off dead’: UK court hears Down syndrome abortion law challenge

Heidi Crowter speaks outside the High Court in London England, July 6, 2021. Heidi Crowter speaks outside the High Court in London England, July 6, 2021./ Don’t Screen Us Out via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

A woman with Down syndrome said on Tuesday that a U.K. law allowing abortion up to birth for disability made her feel that she was “better off dead.”

Heidi Crowter, a 26-year-old from Coventry, in central England, made the comment outside the High Court in London on July 6 as she prepared to challenge the law.

“Here we are at the High Court to challenge the downright discrimination that allows abortion up to birth for Down’s syndrome,” she said.

“This law makes me feel I am better off dead, I know I’m not, but that’s how it makes me feel.”

Crowter was addressing supporters who had gathered outside the court as she and Máire Lea-Wilson, a mother whose son has Down syndrome, prepared to take part in the potentially historic case.

/ Don’t Screen Us Out via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).
/ Don’t Screen Us Out via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Lea-Wilson, a 33-year-old from West London, said: “Our case is about equality and that everyone in the whole world deserves to be treated equally regardless of disability, gender, race, religion -- and so I really hope that we win today and that we start to pave a path for true equality and acceptance of people with disabilities.”

Among those supporting the pair outside the court was the actress and comedian Sally Phillips, who appeared in the “Bridget Jones” film series.

/ Don’t Screen Us Out via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).
/ Don’t Screen Us Out via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

There is a general 24-week time limit on abortion in England, Scotland, and Wales. But Section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act 1967 permits abortion up to birth if “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.”

There were 3,083 abortions on the basis of disability recorded in England and Wales in 2020, 693 of them following a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome -- an increase from 656 in 2019.

/ Don’t Screen Us Out via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).
/ Don’t Screen Us Out via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Crowter told supporters: “There is no difference between me and someone who doesn’t have Down’s syndrome, like my nephew. Life is good for people like me and abortion law needs to show that. Everybody is equal, and doctors shouldn’t tell women that they will be sorry if their child is born. They should be supporting them.”

She continued: “It makes me sad that this doesn’t happen. My family aren’t sorry I was born, my husband isn’t sorry I was born, and all my friends appreciate me too. We are happy with our lives.”

“And my mum, who is also my agent, here today, realizes she was wrong about me when I was born. She thought I wouldn’t get married and I did. A year ago. It’s my anniversary this week. James, my husband, has Down’s syndrome too. He supports me in this case.”

/ Don’t Screen Us Out via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).
/ Don’t Screen Us Out via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

The Guardian newspaper reported that Jason Coppel, a senior barrister representing the claimants, told the High Court on July 6 that Crowter had been “the subject of abuse because of her disability and believes that the existence of a law allowing abortion up to birth for babies with DS [Down syndrome] is a contributory cultural cause of this type of abuse.”

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Crowter and Lea-Wilson, who are supported by the group Don’t Screen Us Out, have crowdfunded more than $140,000 for the case, which is scheduled to last two days, with judgment expected to be reserved until a later date.

Lea-Wilson told CNA in May that she was inspired to take part in the case after seeing Crowter discussing the law on television.

She said that the disability rights campaigner’s words resonated with her following the birth of her second son, Aidan, in June 2019.

“I had discovered that Aidan would likely be born with Down syndrome when I was 34 weeks pregnant, and then was asked repeatedly if I wanted to terminate the pregnancy,” she said.

/ Don’t Screen Us Out via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).
/ Don’t Screen Us Out via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

“Suddenly the way I was treated changed from an excited parent expecting a second child, to a woman facing a great tragedy who had to make a ‘choice’ -- to abort my pregnancy or not.”

“I have two sons who I love and value equally, so I cannot understand why the law does not value them equally.”

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Speaking to supporters outside the court, Crowter said: “The judges need to know that we are not suffering and our parents and family don’t suffer. The doctors need to hear this, they need to hear from people like me and learn more about life with Down’s syndrome.”

“My fight for justice and equality has brought us here today to change a law that makes me think I shouldn’t have been born.”

“When the law changes for us then we will have won the fight. Let’s do this.”