Just how does the legalised abortion of disabled babies make the world a better place?
Campaigners talk about a mother's choice, but there are other, deeper issues to consider, says Alban Maginness
Last week's documentary entitled A World without Down's Syndrome, by the actress Sally Phillips, was a very powerful piece of television. It did a number of things that were very valuable. First, in a gentle, but descriptive and non-emotive way, it presented Down's syndrome people, both children and adults, as being people, rather than being abnormal or odd. That they, as people, had not just feelings, but thoughtful understanding and aspirations.
The programme liberated the viewer from societal stereotypes and gave all of us a greater understanding of the realness of this human condition. In a way, the programme removed our own misunderstanding of people with Down's syndrome. We were thrown into the world of Down's syndrome, with the good and the bad aspects of life there. We left the programme with a much greater insight and appreciation - and I think much happier - than before.
But I think it was the pervasive gentleness and love between parent and child and child and parent that captured the viewer's imagination and won us over. Many documentaries leave us numb or angry, but this one left viewers feeling happy and filled with good heart.
But the programme raised graver issues. It focussed in on the new screening test for Down's syndrome during pregnancy. This newly developed, non-invasive test is extremely accurate in detecting the condition during pregnancy. It could become freely available to mothers through the health service in the near future.
Present testing is not nearly as accurate as this new one. Inevitably, especially in Britain, the question arises if the test proves positive, what choice shall the mother make? Should she continue with the pregnancy and give birth to a baby with Down's syndrome? Or should she opt for an abortion, as she legally is entitled to do under current law?
Under current British law, namely the 1967 Abortion Act, if there is a substantial risk that, if a child were born, it would suffer from such physical, or mental, abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped, then an abortion can be legally carried out. This applies to babies with Down's syndrome, as well as other babies with other conditions, such as spina bifida.
Uniquely in Europe, because of amendments to the 1967 Act by the Embryology Act in 1990, Britain permits abortion on these grounds right up to birth. There is, effectively, no time limit if the baby is diagnosed as being seriously disabled. If tests or examinations indicate serious disability, then the mother has an option to have an abortion.
During the programme, Sally Phillips queried the idea of choice for the mother of a disabled or imperfect baby. Was it a real choice for the baby's mother? Clearly, the baby had no choice in the matter and was totally dependent on the mother's decision.
But, more deeply in the circumstances of being told that your baby has Down's syndrome and given the mother's own lack of knowledge and lack of experience and given her emotional and physical low and her dependence on the medical advice of clinicians, was the mother in such circumstances capable of making a rational and balanced decision?
Does the increase in choice mean greater happiness? Is choice as wonderful as it is cracked up to be? These are the types of serious questions raised by Sally Phillips in her programme.
They are, of course, relevant to our own circumstances here, where there is a concerted effort by some politicians and UK-based pressure groups to change our own protective law to permit the abortion of babies with serious abnormalities, such as anencephaly, now referred to as fatal foetal abnormality.
Should our law be reshaped so as to remove the protection that seriously disabled or abnormal babies in the womb currently have here in Northern Ireland?
As Sally Phillips asks us in her programme, what sort of world do we want to live in? And who do we want in it? Should those with serious physical or mental disability be excluded, such as those with Down's syndrome? Is our brave new world a world free of serious imperfection? Are we so perfect ourselves? Before we "modernise" our present law and join the "progressive" ranks of freely available abortion in Western Europe, should we not stop and ask ourselves: does the abortion of seriously disabled babies make the world a better place? Does it make the mothers of those aborted babies any happier? Is Iceland a much happier place now that 100% of Down's babies are aborted? Or is contemporary Britain any happier because 90% of Down's babies are never permitted to be born?
Let all of us reflect carefully and with love on the important issues that have been raised by Sally Phillips's programme, not in a moralistic, or condemnatory fashion, but in a genuinely inquisitive and open debate.