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Explainer: Abortion Act in the U.K. challenged but upheld by the High Court

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September 27, 2021

While the effort to increase the influence of pro-life work and save as many preborn lives as possible here in America marches on, it is important to realize that the issue of abortion is an international one. 

For instance, in the United Kingdom, Heidi Crowter recently issued a challenge against the British government, asserting that part of the country’s Abortion Act is discriminatory against people with Down syndrome and other disabilities. The court, after a two-day hearing, swiftly dismissed the case, finding Crowter’s arguments unconvincing. Sadly, legislation concerning abortion in the U.K. remains unchanged. And by upholding the Abortion Act in its current form, the court is saying that untold numbers of preborn children with disabilities can continue to be lawfully aborted. 

What is the Abortion Act?

Passed in 1967, the Abortion Act states that an abortion may, under certain conditions, be lawfully allowed up until the 24th week of pregnancy. If two registered medical practitioners agree within the first 24 weeks that continuing the pregnancy would subject the woman to greater risk of “injury to her physical or mental health” than would terminating the pregnancy, an abortion is permitted by law. 

The language included in the Abortion Act goes on to state that an abortion may be lawful when “(b) the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; or (c) that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated; or (d) 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.” 

When any of these conditions is met, it is concluded that no person shall be found “guilty under the law relating to abortion.”

Why was the Abortion Act challenged?

Crowter, a 26-year-old woman with Down syndrome, along with two others, issued their challenge to the Abortion Act by taking specific aim at article (d), which states that abortions can be allowed up until birth if there’s “a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.” 

As a woman living with Down syndrome, Crowter argued that the “legislation is offensive and disrespectful,” and ultimately, “discriminatory,” to such an extent that it violates the European Convention on Human Rights. 

As written, article (d) of the Abortion Act articulates ambiguous and subjective parameters that adversely affect preborn children with disabilities and markedly increase the potential that they won’t be carried to term by their mothers. It is a law that undoubtedly discriminates against these children.  

Why was the case dismissed?

As described by Sylvia Hui in the Associated Press, the case was dismissed by two senior judges who concluded that “the legislation isn’t unlawful and that it aims to strike a balance between the rights of the unborn child and that of women.” Acknowledging that “the case gave rise to strong feelings and differences over ethical and religious views,” the two judges went on to say that the court must “rule only in accordance with the law” and not wade into ethical and religious controversies. 

By dismissing the case, the judges concluded that “the legislation was a matter for Parliament ‘which can take account of different interests and viewpoints, rather than in litigation.’”

What’s next?

Crowter is adamant that she intends to appeal the court’s ruling. “We face discrimination every day in schools, in the workplace, and in society,” she said. “Thanks to the verdict, the judges have upheld discrimination in the womb too.” Paul Conrathe, a lawyer representing the claimants, commented further, saying, “By allowing babies with (Down) syndrome to be aborted up to birth, unlike neurotypical babies, the law sends a powerful message that the lives of people with (Down) syndrome are of lesser value.”

How should Christians think about this?

We believe that every person, from the moment of conception, bears the image of God and, therefore, should be valued and treated with equal dignity at every stage of development and at any level of physical or mental ability. 

As applied to the Abortion Act, this means that it is both unjust and unconscionable to allow abortions to lawfully occur at any point simply because a preborn child runs the risk of being “seriously handicapped.” While one may argue that the intent of this law is compassion, the reality is that it is a grim, barbaric allowance that devalues the lives of preborn children with disabilities. 

The ERLC stands resolutely opposed to this and other such legislation, both here and abroad, that so clearly diminishes the value of God’s image-bearers. And we will continue to stand for life in the public square, before the courts in the U.S., and before Congress.

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author