Abortion and disability
to the study : young people's attitudes to abortion for abnormality
"There can be a conflict between disabled people and the
right to choose. Disabled people would like to see themselves
as normal people who can overcome their disabilities. Saying
that it's ok to have an abortion for disability becomes an
"I think it's the woman's choice about abortion. If she's
not happy you can't expect the child to be happy when it grows
"I think abortion is getting abused. It would be far more
sensible if they put more money into contraception before
pregnancy and adoption after it."
"I think that women should only have an abortion if there
is a serious risk to them or the child, not just if it's something
like Down's syndrome."
"Abortion liberates women. No contraception is 100 per
cent effective, so it's inevitable that it will fail sometimes."
"That's what worries me about abortion for fetal abnormality.
You don't know how far it will go. Should you be allowed to
have an abortion if it hasn't got a hand say?"
"I feel that any interference with a woman's life whether
it be work, studies or relationships are all valid reasons
for a woman to have an abortion"
"Right now I have no problem with having an abortion for
any disability that we can detect before birth. However, I
am concerned that as technology develops and we can detect
smaller abnormalities such as congenital blindness that things
may go too far."
"If a woman really doesn't want a child it's not fair on
either her or the baby to make her have it."
"Many kids with Down's syndrome are great and they can
have a perfectly good life. It's not like the child is in
pain all the time. If the child was in pain I think the woman
should have an abortion though."
" I think it's a problem if people say I don't want to
have a Downs Syndrome child, purely on the basis of its disability.
It would be like saying I want to have a blonde child or I
want my child to be six feet tall."
"I don't know why people think we should have the right
to choose, it's the consumer idea that you can get exactly
what want. Why should people be allowed to do that?"
"I think its really scary that people want to change that
children will look when they are born. It'd be horrible if
everyone was the same".
"I'm not happy with the idea of a law that could stop women.
It would be impossible to enforce. Who would you punish? The
doctor, the woman? It's a difficult area and not one I am
convinced we should go down."
"The population should be as diverse as possible because
you can learn a lot from disabled people. Disabled people
make the most of what they have. They are probably more loving
and understanding than people who are caught up in a rat race.
They don't take things for granted."
The idea for this piece of research came about following the
publication of a 1997 MORI poll sponsored by the British Pregnancy
Advisory Service and Birth Control Trust. This poll found
that 64 per cent of respondents said they believe that abortion
should be made legally available for all who want it. The
poll found that support for the availability of legal abortion
for all who want it has increased significantly since 1980,
when a similar survey found that a little over 50 per cent
of the population gave the same response to a similar question.
In contrast, the opposite trend was found when people said
what they thought about abortion for abnormality. In 1980,
84 per cent said they approved of abortion in cases of mental
disability and 81 per cent in relation to physical disability.
The 1997 poll found these figures had dropped to 67 and 66
per cent respectively.
This shift in opinion is of particular interest when placed
in historical perspective. It has been noted in studies of
the history of abortion law reform, that a key factor which
led to the legalisation of abortion through the 1967 Abortion
Act was the thalidomide tragedy. The birth of babies with
severe limb deformities, resulting from the prescription of
the drug thalidomide to their mothers, acted to increase substantially
public support for legal abortion. That fetal abnormality
was seen at that time as a 'good reason' for abortion is reflected
in the 1967 Act. The Act specifies 'substantial risk of serious
handicap' as a ground for legal abortion. Significantly, the
time limit which applies to abortion on other grounds, after
which abortion is no longer legal, does not apply when abnormality
is detected in the fetus.
It would seem however that since the 1960s, a significant
shift in attitude has taken place. Fetal abnormality then
was seen as a 'good' reason for abortion which perhaps deserved
more support than other reasons a woman might have for ending
pregnancy. Today in contrast it appears to be a reason which
people find it much harder to support than in the past. The
aim of this research was to try to find more about why abortion
for abnormality is now seen in this way.
In particular, our concern was with the attitudes of young
people to this issue. This focus arises from the results of
the MORI poll mentioned previously. The tendency for respondents
to this poll to say they disapproved of abortion on the grounds
of fetal abnormality was most marked among the youngest section
of respondents: the 15-24 age group age. In this age group,
36 per cent said they disapproved, and 50 per cent said they
approved of abortion where there would be mental handicap,
and 40 per cent and 47 per cent respectively approved and
disapproved where there would be physical handicap. It was
striking in the MORI poll results, that approval of abortion
for abnormality increased systematically with age, with the
highest approval rating among those aged 65+ (75 per cent
approve, 11 per cent disapprove for mental handicap and 69
per cent approve and 15 per cent disapprove for physical handicap.
For full statistics, see appendix 2).
We therefore began our research with a working assumption
that the opinions of the 15-24 age group had most clearly
been influenced by different factors to those which had influenced
older generations. By carrying out research into the attitudes
of young people, we hoped to gain insights into the reasons
why abortion for abnormality is less approved of by this younger
age group. A particular issue we chose to highlight in our
research was the question of attitudes to abortion for Down's
syndrome. We justify this on the basis that there has been
extensive discussion in the medical and popular press, and
within the pro-choice community about whether abortion on
the grounds of Down's syndrome is legitimate. Therefore we
wanted to see whether this concern specifically was reflected
in the opinions of young people.
As a pro-choice organisation, our aim in doing so was not
motivated by purely academic interest. The difficulties young
people have in accepting abortion for abnormality is an important
issue for those of us concerned with upholding the ability
of a woman to end a pregnancy for whatever reason she sees
fit. Given that the age group we chose to survey constitutes
the opinion formers of tomorrow, it is crucial for pro-choice
opinion to understand their views, if we are to engage with
those views, and ensure that support for a woman's right to
abortion holds strong in the future.
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