5 things we learned from Philippa Taylor’s talk on foetal disability

by Oxford Students for Life

This Monday Philippa Taylor addressed OSFL in its first event of the term on ‘Should foetal disability be a ground for abortion?’ Philippa addressed different aspects of the current UK law on abortion and disability, as well as looking at what society can do to improve the experiences of those who learn that the child in their womb may have a serious disability. She engaged us all in a vital conversation we otherwise might not have considered and here are 5 things we learned:

  1. The law is ambiguous

-Ground D of the Abortion Act 1967 permits abortion up until birth in such situations where ‘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.’ The law however is no more specific over what “substantial risk” or “seriously handicapped” actually mean, leaving room for dangerous ambiguity. Doctors widely disagree on the specifics, largely because pre-natal diagnoses are often extremely unreliable. As Philippa pointed out, it has led to cases of abortion being justified for a cleft lip or clubfoot.

  1. The question over disability is similar to sex-selective abortion

-Philippa pointed out the fact that allowing abortion up until birth for disability can logically be compared to making abortion legal on the grounds of sex-selection (which is of course illegal in this country). At the heart of both situations is the question over whether some lives are more worth living, and rightly our society attempts to legislate against this sort of discrimination. However, since it would be natural to oppose a clause allowing for abortion on the grounds of sex as discriminatory, surely the same is also true of the current law allowing for abortion on the grounds of disability. Whilst it’s important to recognise that the two are practically very different, it is an interesting comparison worth considering.

  1. Whatever the law, numerous difficult issues will always arise

-An important point to realise when discussing a sensitive issue of this sort is that, whatever the law, disability will always exist inside and outside of the womb, and the law can’t legislate suffering away. Philippa reminded us to focus on what sort of society we want to create. Her answer:

  1. Society should treat those it can, and care for those it can’t

-Whilst making this point, Philippa acknowledged that there still remains the very difficult instance of rare cases, where children are diagnosed with a really terrible illness, especially one that is potentially fatal. Recognising that there is no easy answer to these situations, Philippa told two very powerful stories. One of them was about a child named Benedict, who died 4 hours after his birth. His mother knew of the fatal illness but had decided to carry him to term, and when asked whether it was worth it, she replied: “Oh yes, for the chance to hold him, see him, and love him before letting go, and for the chance for our other children to see that we would never stop loving them regardless of their imperfections.”

  1. Peri-natal hospices can provide the support needed

-Most in the room hadn’t heard of these hospices, and Philippa said that from her experience most expectant mothers carrying a child with a disability hadn’t heard of them either. They do incredible work giving care, love, and support for mothers and families who know that their child will likely die shortly before or after birth. One example is Zoe’s Place Trust (there are three in the UK), but sadly hospices of this sort lack funding and aren’t numerous in the UK.