The choice no mother ever wants to make

move to ban Down's syndrome abortions
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Roz Barnes was 22 weeks pregnant when she learned that her baby had Down's syndrome. "Everybody always says they know what they'd do in that situation. But you don't. You never know until it happens to you." The parents of three healthy children, she and her husband decided to terminate the pregnancy. It will be the first anniversary next week. "It's very hard right now. I'm reliving it all. But if it happened again, I would take the same decision."

If Lord Brentford had his way, Mrs Barnes would not be allowed to. The Viscount is proposing legislation which would outlaw the abortion of a foetus with Down's syndrome. His Bill, drawn up by the charity Life, is about to receive a second reading in the House of Lords - and, while parliamentary time constraints will prevent it proceeding further, the gesture has outraged the pro-Choice movement, Down's syndrome charities, and even the broader pro-Life lobby.

"Everyone thinks they're going to have a normal baby. It was a terrible shock. I was only 33," recalls Mrs Barnes. The abortion lasted 18 hours. "Some people probably think, how could you do that, how do you live with it? But it was one of those choices I had to make. I see parents in their sixties and seventies with Down's children, and I think, no, I made the right one."

Most Down's syndrome cases, like Roz Barnes', are detected well before the 24 week cut-off point, after which only babies believed to suffer serious abnormalities may be aborted. The vast majority - over 90 per cent - of women who know they are carrying a Down's baby choose a termination. But under Lord Brentford's proposals, they would be singled out in law as the only mothers forced to carry the baby to term, irrespective of all other circumstances.

"These women have to be spared the insult and defeatism and pressure which says they can't cope," says Jack Scarisbrick, chair and trustee of Life. "I would sit down with a mother like this, and tell her that Down's children are very loving. I'd tell her that her child is never going to get into trouble, or go around mugging people, or lie, or cheat, or riot after football matches. He or she will be sweet."

The Bill, says Mr Scarisbrick, will challenge the "cosy middle-class elitism and quasi-fascism" enshrined in our "eugenic" abortion law. "If a baby aged two fell and suffered serious brain damage, would we allow the mother the right to kill it? No, we would not. So why should she be allowed to abort?" It would also protect such mothers from the desperate post-abortion trauma and guilt he says he encounters so often as a Life counsellor.

Lord Brentford, 64, was one of many peers Life invited to propose the Bill. A solicitor, father of four, and newcomer to the public abortion debate, his reasons for agreeing were simple: "I'm not getting involved in the rights and wrongs of abortion at all. That's not my scene. And my children have all got 10 fingers and toes.

"I just want to make the point that those who suffer from Down's syndrome are valuable people, and not things to be thrown on the rubbish heap."

Down's syndrome has been singled out for the Bill as a "representative" disability which Life and Lord Brentford believe has the best chance of attracting public sympathy, leading to further reforms. Dominic Lawson's very public account, in the Sunday Telegraph, of the birth of his Down's syndrome daughter last year, raised the profile of the case against aborting Down's babies, as have recent accounts of Down's sufferers sitting A-levels, attending college, even having their own babies.

But none of this disposes the Down's Syndrome Association towards the Bill. "We have not been consulted," says its chair, Carol Boys. "and we cannot support it." Likewise, the Support Around Termination for Foetal Abnormality firmly defends a mother's right to make an informed choice. Ann Furedi of The Birth Control Trust is more outspoken: "It's an outrageous, barbaric piece of legislation."

To single out Down's syndrome, argues Ms Furedi, is entirely arbitrary. The Bill would place doctors in the appalling position of facing requests from distraught mothers carrying Down's babies for terminations on some other pretext. Ms Furedi asks: "Who would want to frame a law with in- built ambiguity, which calls for creative interpretation from doctors?" The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has written to peers, informing them of its opposition to the Bill.

But the most surprising objection comes from the mainstream pro-Life lobby itself. The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child gives a grudging welcome, but thinks it "a shame he has not sought to outlaw any abortion on the grounds of discrimination, whether gender, race, disability or whatever." Privately, though, pro-Life campaigners in many quarters are livid.

"Lord Brentford's extremely naive. Worryingly naive," says one. "It was a very rash thing for Life to go inviting peers to propose this, and why he accepted the invitation I just don't know.

"Over 90 per cent of abortions are performed for social convenience. That's where the consensus of opposition lies - not on the handicapped issue - and this takes the pro-Life fight onto its very weakest ground. The whole thing's a hopelessly misguided distraction." For many, the fear is the Bill will serve only to resurrect old pains. "It's just raking it all up again," says Carol Boys, of the Down's Syndrome Association. "And some people with Down's are able to read, too."