An interesting debate has been sparked on screening and abortion by Richard Boock’s recent blog post both on the post itself and over at The Hand Mirror. Anti-abortion advocates have also weighed in, of course. This is an important discussion to have. As Anthea notes over on THM, pro-choice advocates don’t want to alienate those engaged in the disability rights struggle since we, too, oppose discrimination and the devaluing of any particular group. I think it’s worth remembering, too, that anti-abortion advocates want to take away the reproductive rights of all of us, including people with Down syndrome, and that anti-abortion campaigners don’t equal disability rights campaigners.

I thought it might be useful to post an article from ALRANZ’s August Newsletter on this issue that gives a bit of background about why this has become a hot topic:

Choice and Antenatal Screening

IN FEBRUARY 2010, the Ministry of Health introduced a new screening programme that included safer and better funded first and second trimester screening for Down syndrome (trisomy 21) and other conditions including trisomy 13 (Patau syndrome), trisomy 18 (Trisomy E or Edwards syndrome), neural tube defects, and some rare metabolic and genetic disorders. The screening offered is largely (but not entirely) state-funded, and is voluntary.

These changes have provoked opposition from anti-abortion advocates and concern from some disability rights activists. An alliance of parents of Down syndrome children and the antichoice group Right to Life (RTL) have been pursuing challenges to the screening programme, including to the Ministry of Health, the Human Rights Commission, the Health and Disability Commissioner, the Human Rights Review Tribunal and, most recently, the International Criminal Court at the Hague.

In November 2010, the group announced publicly it had applied to Robert Hesketh, the Director of Human Rights Proceedings, to represent them in an action against the NZ Government over the antenatal screening programme. While the director did make a decision on the matter, ALRANZ is unaware of the details of the decision as it is confidential to the complainants. The fact that the Human Rights Tribunal hasn’t been notified of a claim on the issue suggests both that the Director has declined to represent the group and that, to date, the group is not pursuing the matter independently with the Tribunal. This is supported by a comment from columnist Garth George in late November 2010 that the Human Rights Commission had brushed the group off.

Meanwhile, in June of this year, a group of 37 parents and siblings of children with Down Syndrome, and RTL, announced they had lodged a complaint with the International Criminal Court in the Hague. According to a report in The Northern Advocate, the man leading the challenge, Whangarei engineer Mike Sullivan (who featured in a “60 Minutes” segment in June) says the court has confirmed it is considering the complaint. According to a press release at, “the prosecutor has been asked to investigate and intervene in the Ministry of Health’s antenatal screening programme as it persecutes against people with Down syndrome through the prevention of their births”.

ALRANZ opposes the current abortion regime under which the state controls abortion access through a set of narrow grounds, including the ground that targets “seriously handicapped” fetuses. (It’s worth pointing out that the group challenging the screening programme has argued that Down syndrome is not a serious handicap as defined by the law, and therefore “aborting an unborn child based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome is a crime under the Crimes Act 1961”. In addition, fetal abnormality is only a ground until 20 weeks gestation.) This singling out of the “seriously handicapped” by the abortion law is one more reason all specific grounds for abortion should be eliminated and New Zealand’s abortion law should be decriminalized, giving women the right to make their own abortion decision for their own reasons.

Claims that the screening programmes constitute ‘genocide’, ‘eugenics’, or ‘ethnic cleansing’, as some abortion opponents claim are exaggerated and offensive. This is certainly not to deny the societal pressure some women feel to both undergo screening and to abort fetuses identified as having disabling conditions.

As a pro-choice group, ALRANZ fiercely opposes any form of coercion in medical care, including coerced abortion and coerced pregnancy in all its forms, both subtle and overt, and will continue to advocate – as it always has – for adequate support for all pregnant women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term. Choice also means being fully informed about your pregnancy – something anti-abortion advocates frequently invoke in their efforts to introduce restrictive “informed consent” requirements for those seeking abortion. So why would they want to prevent women from accessing that information by shutting down antenatal screening programmes? The answer to concerns over the pressure to produce “perfect” babies is not to end antenatal screening, but to join with disabilities rights groups and others in fighting for a society that welcomes everyone, and gives each woman the freedom to make her own decision. As Dr. Marsha Saxon of the World Institute on Disability put it so well: “Real  ‘choice’ must include the choice to have a child with a disability”. If that is not a reality for some women, the cause is not information but discrimination.

UPDATES: The Northern Advocate had a follow-up story in September that a decision by the ICC had yet to be made, but that the group was having talks with the Ministry of Health about its concerns.

Also, after this article appeared in ALRANZ’s August Newsletter, Mr. Sullivan wrote to thank ALRANZ for its advocacy for the right of people with Down syndrome to be free from discrimination, but pointing out that one part of the report was inaccurate, in particular this: “So why would they want to prevent women from accessing that information by shutting down antenatal screening programmes”? (The “they” referred to anti-abortion advocates in general, not to Saving Down’s in particular.) Mr. Sullivan noted that Saving Down’s do not advocate for the “shutting down” of antenatal screening, and re-stated the group’s position, which is that “genetic screening must not be used to prevent the birth of unborn children with Down syndrome or cause harm to any unborn child”.

ALRANZ asked Mr. Sullivan: “To achieve that goal, would your group want to see restrictions imposed on abortion services/access in general, rather than on screening? If so, what might such restrictions on abortion be?” Mr Sullivan replied by stating that the group “has no position on abortion access and rights”. So it’s still not clear specifically how Saving Down’s would go about achieving its goal. The other group involved in the ICC case is Right to Life, which advocates for a ban on abortion from the so-called “moment of conception”.