Guernsey legislature rejects efforts to prevent disability discrimination in abortion

Girl with Down syndrome Credit Denis Kuvaev via Shutterstock CNA Denis Kuvaev/Shutterstock.

Several amendments which sought to reduce the proposed time limit on abortions or to maintain limits on the abortion of unborn children with disabilities were defeated Friday on the Channel Island of Guernsey.

A bill is being considered to 'modernize' the territory's abortion law and increase the abortion time limit to 24 weeks, as it is in the UK. The existing law, adopted in 1997, permits abortion up to 12 weeks.

The territory is a self-governing Crown Dependency for which the UK is responsible, located off the coast of Normandy. It sets its own laws on abortion. The draft law would extend to Guernsey and its associated islands, but not Alderney and Sark, which are also part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey.

During a June 19 debate deputies of the territory's parliament, the States of Guernsey, rejected four amendments to the bill. These would have retained the same time limits for the abortion of children with disabilies as of all unborn children; made clear that non-fatal conditions such as Down syndrome or cleft palate are not considered fatal foetal abnormalities; and changed the time limit for abortions to 16 or 22 weeks, rather than 24.

"The main debate continues and it remains to be seen whether any of the amendments are supported and so mitigate some of the worst excesses of the proposed amendments to Guernsey's abortion law," Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, the diocese which includes Guernsey, wrote in a June 23 message.

"We are saddened by the outcome of this week's vote but remain committed to fight for the right to life for all from conception to the grave," he added.

Amendments that would allow foetal pain relief after 18 weeks; to require that mothers affirm they consent to the abortion and have not been coerced; to offer counselling before and after an abortion; and to strengthen conscientious objection for medical professionals, are still up for consideration by the States.

A sursis motivé to stay the deliberation of the draft law and allow for broader public consultation was defeated by a 19-20 vote June 18.

The draft law would also decriminalize the procurement of abortion outside the legal framework; drop a requirement that the mother consult with two medical practitioners; increase the time frame for procuring the abortion of a child diagnosed with 'fetal anomaly'; allow nurses and midwives to preform medical abortions; and allow medical abortions at home.

It would also force conscientious objectors to make referrals without delay; "make clear that health practitioners may not refuse to participate in care required to save the life or prevent serious injury to the physical or mental health of a woman"; and "create a power in the Law for the Committee for Health & Social Care to make regulations making further provision in relation to the circumstances in which the right of health practitioners to conscientiously object to the provision of care in relation to abortions may be exercised."

According to official figures, 113 abortions were performed in Guernsey in 2018, with a further three involving Guernsey residents performed in England and Wales.

The Catholic Church on the island held an all night prayer vigil at St. Joseph's Church in St. Peter Port  ahead of the debate last week. The parish is also urging parishioners to write their deputies, and to pray that the legislation fails.

Bishop Egan of Portsmouth urged Catholics earlier this month to resist the "fundamentally detestable" efforts to liberalize the island's abortion law.

In a June 7 message he argued the proposed changes would violate the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" and the injunction "Love thy neighbor as thyself", which formed the basis of laws in civilized societies.

"This is why abortion and the current proposal to 'modernize' -- that is, to increase -- its availability in Guernsey is fundamentally detestable," he said. "Under the bogus word 'modernization,' an attempt is being made to further liberalize abortion, to make it a lot easier and a lot more common."

Egan said: "They want to allow abortions much later in pregnancy, abortions to be carried out with less red tape, abortions to take place at home and outside hospitals, and, grimly, abortions right up to birth for a disabled child, a child unwell, or a child with Downs syndrome. How must a person with Downs syndrome feel about this?"

"They refer to abortion euphemistically as a 'procedure,' a 'termination' with help from 'the professionals.' But what procedure can justify any professional terminating the life of an innocent baby? The more you see what an abortion is, the more you can see it is anti-life, anti-human and anti-woman."

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He added: "This is why I am appealing to all of you and to everyone of good will in Guernsey to resist and to face down these sinister proposals coming before the legislature. The post-COVID lockdown is not the right time to ram through legislation like this, not without a full, open and frank consultation and debate."

In a joint letter, John P. Ogier, pastor of Spurgeon Baptist Church, and Fr. Bruce Barnes, the Catholic Dean of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, also criticized the timing of the debate.  

They wrote: "We believe this is an entirely inappropriate time to be considering such a sensitive and morally important issue, in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic and with such a truncated timescale for public debate and consideration."

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