Down Syndrome Awareness Month had hardly concluded when, in a stunning lack of sensitivity, ITV’s Emmerdale producers revealed their intention to introduce a new storyline covering the disability-selective abortion of a baby found to have Down’s syndrome.
That decision has understandably sparked outrage from many parents of children with Down’s syndrome, and flies in the face of repeated calls that society should promote the dignity of those with disabilities.
Rather than challenging the prevailing stigma around conditions such as Down’s syndrome and celebrating the riches and diversity of the Down’s syndrome community across the UK, the long-running soap opera instead chose prejudice.
Over 30,000 people have now signed a petition urging ITV to cancel the forthcoming episode.
Producers of the long-running show defended their storyline by claiming close consultation with the charity Antenatal Results and Choices (ARC). This admission only confirms the worst fears of their many critics, however, since the ARC boasts a history of advocacy for retaining the current law in England, Wales and Scotland that allows disability-selective abortion until birth.
During a Commons debate commemorating Down Syndrome Awareness Month, Health Minister Helen Whately was keen to stress that "there should at no stage be any bias towards abortion" following a diagnosis of disability. But the depiction of Down’s syndrome as effectively a death sentence in a major television programme undermines any reassurance the Health Minister’s words brought, and brings cold comfort to the Down’s syndrome community.
The sad spectre of disability-selective abortion only seems to grow. In 2019, there were 3,183 disability-selective abortions across England and Wales, with 656 of those following the parents’s discovery their child had Down’s syndrome. Already in the first six months of this year, there have been 339 mentions of Down’s syndrome on the HSA4 Abortion Notification Forms received by the Chief Medical Officer.
Pressure to abort on the grounds of Down’s syndrome is grotesque, regardless of the source of such suggestion. A recent report from Positive About Down Syndrome (PADS) revealed that after initially rejecting the option to abort, 46% of mothers were asked again to consider abortion for their baby with Down’s syndrome, including one woman, Nicola Sparrow, who was offered an abortion at 37 weeks of pregnancy, even after being told that she would be induced the following morning.
The concerned voices of those involved in the lives of people with Down’s syndrome deserve to be heard. As Hannah Wellbourn, whose daughter has Down’s syndrome, has emphasised, such a discriminatory plot undermines the positive work of Down Syndrome Awareness Month in showcasing the dignity, talents, and ambitions of those living and thriving with the condition. Similarly, the words of Sharon Thomson, mother to a six-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome, bear repeating: "There will be adults with Down’s syndrome watching that show feeling very hurt and upset and perhaps wondering if they should have been terminated."
The Emmerdale storyline has been denounced as "on the wrong side of history" by the leading actress and Christian Sally Philips. Indeed, such outdated attitudes towards a life with disability should be condemned by society, yet the Emmerdale storyline proves we have a long way to go. The scale of disability-selective abortion and the worrying indications of their increasing ease should cause us all present concern. Eugenics should never be a form of entertainment. Nor should it ever be facilitated by our laws and policies.
Sadly our laws discriminate against the disabled in allowing disability to be, uniquely, the only grounds (other than emergency to save the life of the mother etc) for permitting abortion up until full gestation and birth. Under a Conservative government committed to equality of rights, this should change. The only good that can come from the hurt caused by the Emmerdale storyline is a reopening and reinvigorating of debate about this stain on our collective conscience.
Chris Whitehouse leads the team at The Whitehouse Consultancy, is a Trustee of The Right to Life Charity, and recently completed an MA in contemporary ethics at Heythrop College.
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