Cleft Lips and Palates, Abortion and Discrimination in the U.K.

Hanibal Smith at The A-Team Blog has blogged on a rather horrible article from the Guardian entitled "Cleft lip abortion done 'in good faith'." The article reports on the fact that two doctors who performed a late term abortion on a child whose only reported defect was a cleft lip and palate would not be prosecuted for violating the British abortion law requiring evidence of a "serious handicap" before such an abortion can proceed.:

Doctors and health officials will consider whether more guidance on abortions is needed following the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute two doctors who authorised a late abortion on a foetus with a cleft lip and palate.

Jim England, the chief crown prosecutor for West Mercia, said the doctors believed, in good faith, that there was a substantial risk the child would be seriously handicapped.

* * *

Joanna Jepson, 28, now at St Michael's Church, Chester, but then a trainee vicar, found out about the procedure in 2002 when studying abortion statistics and suggested that it amounted to unlawful killing.

Yesterday Ms Jepson said: "While I'm disappointed about the CPS's decision to drop the case, I am pleased the case has raised the issue of late-term abortion and the plight of disabled babies in late-term pregnancy. It has exposed grave discrimination and I will be seeking legal advice."

Excuse me? I may not be well versed in the laws of England, but it seems to me that it is difficult to find a basis on which a cleft lip and palate can be considered a "serious handicap" -- serious enough to warrant killing the unborn child. I doubt that those who are members of the Cleft Lip and Palate Association ("CLAPA"), who assert that "one in every 600-700 children in the UK is born with a cleft lip and/or palate" would agree that it is a "serious handicap."

Is it a serious handicap under British law? According to in a 2003 article about this same case:

Under British law, an abortion cannot be preformed after the 24th week unless there is risk of a serious handicap. As cleft palate is routinely corrected by surgery and Rev. Joanna Jepson argues that the police should have enforced the law and prosecuted the abortion practitioner.

* * *

"While there is no definition of serious handicap, the common understanding of the man in the street is that cleft palate is a fairly common condition and repaired routinely,” said Jepson’s attorney, Paul Conrathe. "We are asking for a ruling that cleft palate is not a serious handicap and that the police have misdirected themselves in law."

The article is correct in noting that cleft palates are routinely corrected by surgery. According to the CLAPA on their page of treatments for cleft lips and palates:

A cleft lip is usually surgically repaired by the time a baby is 2-3 months old. It requires a general anaesthetic and takes roughly one and a half hours. The surgeon re-arranges the skin and muscles of the lip so no skin grafting from other parts of the body is needed.

Most babies recover very quickly and will not experience much pain after this operation. Medication is given for any discomfort. The hospital stay for this operation is between 3 - 5 days. A parent is usually welcome to stay in hospital with the child.

Feeding after the lip operation is not usually a problem.

* * *

The palate is usually repaired by the time a baby is a year old. The tissues of the palate are re-arranged but no extra tissue from other parts of the body is used. The operation is, like the lip repair, carried out under general anaesthetic and takes approximately one and a half hours.

It is difficult to imagine circumstances under which a cleft lip and palate would constitute a "serious handicap" such as to support a belief that children with such mild deformities should be aborted. It seems reasonable that doctors could be disciplined, if not prosecuted, for performing an abortion for a cleft lip or plate since it is difficult to see how they could be considered a "serious handicap." Yet, leaving that choice to abort a child for a mild deformity appears to be exactly what British pro-choice advocates claim ought to be done -- at least they seem to favor giving the doctors unlimited discretion.

"At the moment it is down to the doctor's discretion and their decision about how severe the abnormality is," a [pro-choice] spokeswoman told BBC News.

"It was decided by two doctors that the abnormality was severe enough to allow the woman to have an abortion if that's what she wanted."

I certainly want to be careful here. It is, of course, possible that the doctors saw something more serious than a cleft lip and palate on this baby. But all I can go by is the news story which seems to have nothing in it to say that the baby had anything more than a cleft lip and palate. Thus, it seems to me fair to say that the only thing that this baby was found to have was a cleft lip and palate which these doctors determined were a severe enough handicap under the law of England so as to make abortion the best available option. But it was still just a cleft lip and palate.

It seems as if England is sliding down that slippery slope (sorry Layman) of aborting anyone who is less than perfect under the guise of "severe handicap." Am I alone in this conclusion? Consider the words of Baroness Masham of Ilton on March 16, 2004 to Parliament:

I must admit at the start that I find abortion at any time and for anyone, especially the most vulnerable, a very disturbing situation. But today we are speaking of a more specific situation and of the law. It seems that there is no definition in law of the term "serious handicap". While the situation means that doctors can and do abort on the grounds of any condition, to press for a definition of the term "serious handicap" would in effect be to sign the death warrants of those babies who fall within the definition; for instance, many with Down's syndrome or spina bifida.

Many disabled people are painfully aware that in this country doctors can abort on grounds of "serious handicap" at any time up until birth. This situation is one which clearly discriminates on the grounds of physical or mental ability. The Disability Discrimination Act came into force in 1999, and yet discrimination on eugenic grounds—

"making a pure and perfect human race"—

has got worse. I do not think that many of the public realise that disabled babies can be terminated after 24 weeks and up to full term. After all, 24 weeks is almost six months.

One of my secretaries was born with a cleft palate. She was operated on. She is a splendid girl, full of vigour, and enjoys life to the full. I am sure that many of your Lordships know people who have been born with cleft palates or hare lips. With microsurgery and surgeons' skills we are talking now of something which can be corrected. Some time ago a paediatric plastic surgeon told me that he was concerned that he was not getting enough babies with cleft palates each year to keep in best operating practice. He needed about 30 babies to operate on each year but this figure had dropped because they were being aborted.

Modern society seems to want only the perfect—designer clothes, designer babies, the immaculate fridge. There is also a growing danger of other people judging the quality of life of those they think will not have as good a life as they have themselves. Is that not playing God?

I hope that tonight's Question will alert some people who may not have realised how far down the road of discrimination we have gone, with regard to the unborn child who may or may not have a handicap.



Phil Steiger said…
There are many people out there who do not believe in the validity of the 'slippery slope' argument, but I am afraid reality bears it out. If we are at a point where a society is willing to label this a hadicap, then we have slipped a long way indeed!

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