Fighting discrimination in the womb
A U.K. woman with Down syndrome wants to overturn an abortion law that discriminates against babies with disabilities
On her wedding day, 25-year-old Heidi Crowter carried a bouquet of yellow and purple flowers in one hand and held her father’s arm with the other as she made her way down the aisle between the rows of widely spaced chairs for roughly 30 guests at Hillfields Church in Coventry, England. Crowter’s fiancé, James Carter, watched her from the front row. He stood with his arms crossed, a yellow flower pinned to his lapel. During the ceremony, Crowter and Carter laughed when the pastor teased them for their enthusiastic hymn singing—something they couldn’t do on their July 4, 2020, wedding due to COVID-19 restrictions. When the pastor recited part of their motto text, Psalm 139, they beamed.
“I think that you two have probably given more thought to what we call the sanctity of life, the preciousness of life, than most other people have,” the pastor said. “You both feel very passionately about it.”
The couple’s passion for the issue comes in part from a medical condition they share: Crowter and Carter have Down syndrome. And that passion has overflowed into fighting for the dignity of others with the same condition, including the unborn.
About three years ago, Crowter learned that, while most babies in the country are protected from abortion after 24 weeks, parents can abort babies with Down syndrome or other disabilities up until birth. According to recent figures, U.K. parents abort 90 percent of babies who receive a Down syndrome diagnosis.
The news of this unequal treatment for babies with her condition upset Crowter. Together with Máire Lea-Wilson, whose son has Down syndrome, Crowter sued the British government for discriminating against people with disabilities. The court heard the case in July. Two judges dismissed it on Sept. 23, writing that the law struck a balance between “the interests of the fetus and the rights of women.” But Crowter disagrees and plans to keep fighting.
“I am really upset not to win, but the fight is not over,” Crowter told a group of reporters outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the day of the ruling. Her husband held the microphone for her as she read her speech.
Crowter takes issue with the judge’s claim that the law “does not perpetuate and reinforce negative cultural stereotypes to the detriment of people with disabilities.”
“The judges might not think it discriminates against me, the government might not think it discriminates against me,” Crowter said. “But I am telling you that I do feel discriminated against, and the verdict doesn’t change how I and thousands in the Down syndrome community feel.”
Crowter knows what discrimination feels like. When she was 16, internet trolls posted pictures of her on Facebook with insulting captions, The Guardian reported. The photos later disappeared after Crowter’s mother contacted Facebook and the police to inform them of the online bullying. In 2018, Crowter told The Guardian that when people say cruel things, she remembers Psalm 139:14: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
The message from the world isn’t so encouraging. “We face discrimination every day in schools, in the workplace, and in society,” Crowter continued in her speech. “And now, thanks to this verdict, the judges have upheld discrimination in the womb too.”
Crowter’s parents didn’t find out she had Down syndrome until after she was born. The news devastated them. But Crowter’s life has been a joyful one, she says. While parents of children with Down syndrome often assume their children will never live on their own or that they’ll be a burden to the family, Crowter told The Guardian “that’s rubbish.” She lived on her own for more than three years before marrying Carter, and she knows she’s not a burden because her family loves her.
Her wedding day also shattered the expectations society has for people like her. “My mum didn’t think I’d get married,” Crowter told the BBC earlier this year. “Well, boy, didn’t I blow that out the window.”
Despite the disappointing ruling from the court, Crowter plans to continue her defense of people with disabilities. She and Lea-Wilson said they plan to appeal.
At the end of her speech outside of the court, Crowter compared their fight to 18th-century British politician William Wilberforce’s decadeslong battle to end slavery in England. “When Wilberforce wanted to change the law on slavery, he didn’t give up, even when events didn’t always go his way,” she said. “And when the going got tough, he kept going, and I’m going to do the same, because I want to succeed in changing the law to stop babies like me … from being aborted up to birth because it’s downright discrimination.”
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