New guidance needed on abortion for serious handicap, MPs say

Writes Maria Ahmed

The government should produce new guidance on defining foetal abnormality for doctors and patients considering abortion, a group of MPs said today.

Under the Abortion Act 1967, abortion can be considered where there is a “substantial risk” that if a child were born it would suffer from physical or mental abnormalities making it “seriously handicapped.”

An inquiry by the parliamentary science and technology committee into the act found that there were “inconsistencies” on the way abnormalities were defined despite existing guidelines.

The committee’s report said that it currently fell on two doctors to assess a foetus’s future level of disability, leading to an “unacceptable risk of subjective decision-making”.

It cited controversial cases where foetuses with disabilities had been aborted, including a 28-week foetus because it was diagnosed with a bilateral cleft lip and palate in 2001.

There were 20 abortions for foetuses with clubbed feet from 1996 to 2006, and around half of foetuses affected by Down’s syndrome are aborted, according to figures cited in the report.

The committee called on MPs to consider whether a clarification or a definition of “seriously handicapped” was needed.

It recommended that the Department of Health should produce guidance for doctors and patients, and that data should be collected on the reasons for abortion beyond 24 weeks for foetal abnormality.

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