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UK Could Face Human Rights Case Over Abortion Law

A woman with Down syndrome said she planned to take the UK to the European Court of Human Rights in her long-running challenge to the law allowing late abortion of a foetus with the condition .

Heidi Crowter has fought to reverse a clause in the 1967 Abortion Act  which permits abortion up to the time of birth where there was a substantial risk that once born, a child would be seriously handicapped because of physical or mental abnormalities.

The 27-year-old from Coventry, who has argued that the law is discriminatory, had an application rejected by the Court of Appeal in 2022 after previously being unsuccessful in the High Court.

Ms Crowter said an application to the Supreme Court to hear the case had been turned down and she  had decided to take her arguments "all the way" to Strasbourg instead. Announcing the move, Ms Crowter said that the disability clause in the legislation "sends a message to people like me with Down syndrome that we are less valuable than others".

Legal Reform Attempts

Figures from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities  showed there were 3370 abortions performed under the clause, sometimes referred to as 'ground E', in England and Wales in 2021, accounting for 1.6% of all abortions.

A parliamentary inquiry in 2013 noted that the law did not consider a foetus to have legal standing as a person and as such, the question of discrimination could not apply. It recommended that the Government review the disability clause in the 1967 Act .

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities  has criticised countries which allow extended time limits for abortion for disability reasons.

An attempt in 2017 to remove the disability clause , proposed by Conservative peer Lord Shinkwin, failed when the Bill ran out of parliamentary time.

Legal Challenges Failed

In September 2021, the High Court dismissed a case  by Ms Crowter and Máire Lea-Wilson, a mother from West London who said she had been pressurised to have an abortion before giving birth to her son, who has Down syndrome. In a ruling, two senior judges acknowledged the sensitive and controversial issues involved but concluded that Parliament had aimed to strike a balance between the rights of the foetus and the rights of women .

Ms Crowter, who said she had been left "really upset" by the judgement, appealed the case. In November last year, three Court of Appeal judges  unanimously decided that the law did not interfere with the rights of living people with Down syndrome, or other serious disabilities.

Ms Crowter and her legal team are hoping to crowdfund the cost of taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.