A recent study published by the European Journal of Human Genetics in December 2020 which examined the years 2011-2015 determined the number of babies born with Down Syndrome in Europe comparing them to estimates of how many babies would have been born with Down Syndrome had they not of been aborted. The study found that the number of babies born with Down Syndrome in Europe fell by half which confirmed the fears of pro-life campaigners who have argued strongly that an increase in prenatal testing for Down Syndrome has directly led to women opting to abort their children – especially in the United Kingdom.
The findings of the study found that 54% fewer babies with Down Syndrome were born during the 2011-2015 period in the United Kingdom than the expected estimates— a figure roughly in line with the European average.
Notably, in the UK, non-invasive prenatal testing for Down syndrome has been available since 2012. Abortion is legal in the United Kingdom until the 24th week of pregnancy, except when continuing the pregnancy is dangerous to the physical or mental health of the mother, as well as in cases where the baby will “suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.” which include Down syndrome, cleft lip, and club foot, abortion is legal up to birth.
Right to Life UK has documented several instances of women being pressured to abort their children as a result of the prenatal test, with one mother reporting that she had been “offered about 15 terminations,” including when she was 38 weeks pregnant. By some estimates, nine out of ten women in the UK who receive a diagnosis of Down syndrome abort their child. Increased use of NIPT have prompted several medical professional organizations in the UK, including The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, to issue guidelines urging doctors not to apply pressure for abortion based on the results of the tests. An investigation last summer found that the number of births of Down syndrome babies has fallen by 30% in National Health Service hospitals that offer NIPT.
The “Don’t Screen Us Out” campaign in the United Kingdom which began in response to the government’s proposal of a relatively new screening method for Down syndrome— known as “cell-free DNA” tests— that, according to the government, would find an additional 102 cases of Down syndrome a year. The campaign has been drawing awareness to and seeking to change the UK’s abortion laws, so that abortions for non-fatal disabilities are outlawed in the third trimester.
Last year, Heidi Crowter who has Down Syndrome joined by Cheryl Bilsborrow, the mother of a two-year-old with Down syndrome and Máire Lea-Wilson, mother of nearly two-year-old son Aiden, who has Down syndrome launched a lawsuit against the UK government seeking to change the laws. In October, the High Court of England and Wales agreed to hear the legal challenge.
The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has consistently criticized countries which provide for abortion on the basis of disability. In some countries, such as Iceland, the abortion rate for babies believed to have Down syndrome is close to 100%.
Berthe Lejeune, Dr. Lejeune’s widow, has said her husband was heartbroken that many doctors and governments have since used his discovery of the genetic cause for Down syndrome to “screen out” babies with Down syndrome, targeting them for abortion.
“But sadly, all government[s], not only in France, said: oh, it’s a wonderful discovery. You can detect these little sick children before they are born, and so take them away with an abortion.”