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Woman can take Down’s syndrome abortion fight to Court of Appeal

Heidi Crowter will appeal against a ruling which dismissed her challenge to a law which allows abortion up to birth for babies with Down’s Syndrome.

08 March 2022

A woman with Down’s syndrome has been given the go-ahead to take her case against the Government – over legislation which allows the abortion of babies with the condition up until birth – to the Court of Appeal.

Heidi Crowter, 26, from Coventry, is one of three claimants who brought legal action against the Department of Health and Social Care in the hope of removing a section of the Abortion Act they believe to be an “instance of inequality”.

Ms Crowter brought the case with Maire Lea-Wilson, 33, an accountant and mother-of-two from west London, whose son Aidan has Down’s syndrome; and a child with Down’s syndrome, identified only as A.

In England, Wales and Scotland, there is a 24-week time limit on having an abortion.

But terminations can be allowed up until birth if 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”, which includes Down’s syndrome.

The condition, as a result of being born by chance with an extra chromosome, results in some level of disability – with some people able to be more independent and hold a job, while others will need more regular care.

Two High Court judges ruled in September last year that the legislation is not unlawful and aims to strike a balance between the rights of the unborn child and of women.

However, the Court of Appeal will now reconsider the case after judges gave permission for a full hearing on limited grounds of appeal.

Heidi Crowter
Heidi Crowter lives independently and recently got married (Heidi Crowter/PA)

In an unusual step, Ms Crowter, who lives independently and recently got married to James Carter, 28, addressed the court directly at a hearing on Tuesday, telling two senior judges she lives “a full and fulfilled life”.

She told the court: “The law that allows abortion up to birth makes me feel that I am not wanted and loved.

“It makes me feel not valued and that people don’t want babies like me. I think the law is downright discrimination.

“People like me should not be discriminated against.

“Please hear our appeal so all babies can be treated equally, all the time, however many chromosomes they have.

“So, please, let us appeal and change the law to make us all equal. I want people to see us as people and equals and not just a burden.”

Lord Justice Peter Jackson, sitting with Lady Justice Nicola Davies, granted permission for the case to be heard by the Court of Appeal on the grounds that the High Court was wrong to find the Abortion Act did not interfere with the applicants’ rights to private and family life and freedom from discrimination.

Maire Lea-Wilson, 33, and son Aidan, who has Down’s syndrome (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Maire Lea-Wilson, 33, and her son Aidan, who has Down’s syndrome (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

He said: “It is at least arguable that the treatment of the question of interference … was not adequate.

“Even if the appeal is likely to fail for other reasons, this is an area where clarity is important and the applicants and others in their position are entitled to know where the law stands on the question of their rights and whether they have been interfered with.”

The judges refused permission to appeal on the grounds the High Court was wrong to find that the unborn do not have the right to life or protection from inhumane treatment.

Lord Jackson said: “The High Court has stated English law as it is clearly understood to be and there is no arguable case that it is incompatible with the (European Convention on Human Rights) in this respect.

“The applicants want to change the law but any change of that kind is quite clearly a matter for Parliament.”

At a two-day hearing in July, lawyers representing the claimants argued the law is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and therefore unlawfully discriminatory.

But, giving their ruling last year, Lord Justice Singh and Mrs Justice Lieven concluded that the legislation is a matter for Parliament, which can take account of a range of views, rather than the courts.

They added: “The evidence before the court powerfully shows that there will be some families who positively wish to have a child, even knowing that it will be born with severe disabilities.

“But the evidence is also clear that not every family will react in that way.

“As it was put on behalf of the defendant, the ability of families to provide a disabled child with a nurturing and supportive environment will vary significantly.

“The evidence is also clear that, although scientific developments have improved and earlier identification may be feasible, there are still conditions which will only be identified late in a pregnancy, after 24 weeks.”

No date was set for the appeal hearing, which is due to last one day.

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