When disability becomes a death sentence

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

epa06602137 (FILE) - British theoratical physicist and cosmologist, Professor Stephen Hawking speaks to the press. EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN

MEPs condemn ‘mercy killing’ in other countries, but are turning a blind eye to European abortion laws that discriminate against foetuses on the grounds of disability, writes Alice Neffe.

Alice Neffe is Legal Counsel for ADF International

Last month, the European Parliament condemned “mercy killing”, a practice in Uganda whereby parents of disabled children kill or “allow them to die” by denying them medical attention because of the belief that these children are better off dead than living with a painful and incurable disability. The resolution strongly condemns what it describes as the “unjustifiable and inhumane killing of children and new-borns with disabilities.”

It therefore calls upon the Commission and Member States to support all stakeholders in Uganda in the formulation and implementation of policies addressing the needs and rights of persons with disabilities, “based on non-discrimination and social inclusion, and equal access to healthcare and other social services.” With this resolution, the European Parliament positioned itself as a defender of the most vulnerable in our societies, such as children with disabilities. However, its failure to prevent acts ending the lives of children with disabilities, because of their disability, right here in Europe undermines its overseas proclamations.

Across Europe, legislation regarding abortion violates the most fundamental rights of disabled people. Repeatedly, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has condemned selective abortion on the grounds of disability. In particular, it has recommended a modification of the abortion legislation in Spain, Hungary, Austria, and the United Kingdom. Recently, the Committee stated that laws which explicitly allow for abortion on grounds of impairment violate the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

All Member States and the European Union itself have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. While the EU has no competence to regulate abortion, it has committed itself to the protection and promotion of the substantive rights enshrined in the Convention, including equality and non-discrimination and the right to life.

Yet, none of the European institutions condemn the discrimination of disabled people through abortion policies and legislation in Europe or abroad. To the contrary, a few months ago, in a resolution on rule of law and democracy in Poland, the European Parliament strongly criticised legislative proposals that would prohibit abortion in cases of severe or fatal foetal impairment.

Poland allows abortion in three cases: when the pregnancy threatens the life or health of the mother; when the pregnancy is the result of a crime such as rape or incest; and when medical opinion indicates that the child might be born with a disability.

The “disability” ground for abortion is about ending the life of an unborn child who does not perfectly correspond to what society considers “healthy” or “desirable”. By allowing this, the provision compromises the rights of people with disabilities. Furthermore, it influences our perception on people with disability and sends a clear message: unborn children with a potential disability are not full members of our society and rights bearers just as every other person.

In 2002, 159 abortions were performed under the Polish law. By 2016, that had risen to 1,098 cases – a rise of 600%. And yet, it is not even the growing number of abortions that speaks the loudest. Out of these 1,098 abortions, 1,042 were performed because the child was potentially disabled.

Legislation is a powerful tool, not only reflecting but also shaping the society that it regulates. If legislation mirrors society, then at present, Poland’s abortion laws mirror a society on the way to eradicating disability, not by humane medical research and innovation, but by taking the lives of children in the womb. Therefore, the citizens’ legislative initiative “Zatrzymaj aborcję” (“Halt abortion”) drafted the bill (nr 2146), which is currently before the Polish Parliament. The aim of the bill is to stop with the obvious discrimination allowed under Poland’s current abortion law listing disability as a ground for abortion and violating the very idea of equal rights.

Legislation is not the only source stigmatising persons with disabilities. The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has identified antenatal screening policies as potentially discriminatory against unborn persons with disabilities. It recommended States to “address stigmatisation through modern forms of discrimination, such as a disability-selective antenatal screening policy that go against the recognition of the equal” to 90% in Norway, and 90% in the United Kingdom. In the United States, it is 67%. In Poland, over 37% of abortions performed on the ground of the disability of the unborn child were caused by the possibility of the child having Down syndrome.

Life with a disability can certainly be a challenge for the person and their family. However, there are many examples of those living with disabilities leading exceptionally fulfilled and fruitful lives. A case in point is Professor Stephen Hawking. He recently passed away aged 76 after leading an incredible life of discovery and contribution to the scientific knowledge of this world. Though he lived with a degenerative disease and experienced severe disabilities due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he was one of the greatest physicists in history. Therefore, no legislation or policy should use the additional challenges related to raising children with disabilities as a justification for laws that fail to respect human dignity and violate international law.

In the following months, the work towards the elaboration of the post-2020 European Disability Strategy will start. It should include reflection on the stigmatisation and discrimination of persons with disabilities through abortion policy. Indeed, what would be a better place to start acting against stereotyping disability as incompatible with a good life than one of the most dangerous places for a disabled person today – his or her mother’s womb.



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