A MOTION that demands unbiased information for parents who are told that their unborn child has Down’s syndrome was carried unanimously by the General Synod on Saturday.
After insisting that the debate was not about the ethics of abortion, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, resisted several amendments, including one that called for explicit advice against terminating pregnancies on the basis of Down’s syndrome. Despite the fall of these amendments, the Synod voted for the Measure in all three houses.
It supports the continued development of ante-natal care, including screening, but also asks the Government and medical profession to ensure that parents are given “comprehensive, unbiased information” about Down’s syndrome (Comment, 26 January). The only successful amendment, from Dr John Appleby, expands this to include “information about the support available and the future prospects of those with this condition, with no implied preference for any outcome”.
The debate took place as the NHS prepares to roll out non-invasive pre-natal testing (NIPT) to about 10,000 women who are at higher risk of a having a child with Down’s syndrome. In other countries that use the technology, including Iceland, the termination rate is almost 100 per cent (News, 26 January).
The motion was not “a regressive attack on medical discoveries”, Bishop Newcome insisted, nor “an attempt to tell women what they should do when faced with a desperately difficult personal decision”. It was, rather, “an affirmation of one of the most important Christian doctrines: that is our belief that every human being is made in the image of God”, and “a call for love and practical assistance”.
The Synod heard personal stories which celebrated the joy brought by people with Down’s syndrome, including one from the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, who spoke of the delight of raising his godson, Jack, who has Down’s syndrome, after the boy’s mother died in childbirth, and the father took his own life.
But there was deep concern, too. Andrew Gray (Norwich) argued that “secular politically correct liberalism”, which claimed to appreciate people with disabilities, failed to walk the talk. Across Europe, de facto voluntary eugenics was under way. “Quite frankly, there are some stark comparisons with the Third Reich,” he warned.
There was sustained applause for the Revd Rachel Wilson (Rochester), a wheelchair user, who spoke of her confidence that she was “wonderfully made in the image of God”.
“We need to remove the link between perceived capacity and whether a life is really worth living,” she said. “Being born with a disability is not a disaster . . . I was blessed with parents who saw fit to completely ignore what the doctors told them . . . We do a dangerous and disingenuous thing if we imagine for the worst what their lives are like.”
But there was deep concern, too. Andrew Gray (Norwich) argued that “secular politically correct liberalism”, which claimed to appreciate people with disabilities, actually failed to walk the talk. Across Europe de facto voluntary eugenics was underway. “Quite frankly, there are some stark comparisons with the Third Reich,” he warned.
Among the amendments, Canon Martyn Taylor (Lincoln) wished to refer to valuing people with Down’s syndrome “before as well as after birth”, and Emma Forward (Exeter) wanted the Synod to explicitly advise that pregnancies should not be terminated on the basis of Down’s syndrome, to make a “very clear statement on the unquestionable value of Down’s syndrome people”.
Prudence Dailey (Oxford) wanted to encourage the churches of the Porvoo Communion to “oppose any policy of making society Down’s syndrome free”. Although her amendment fell, the Archbishop of Cantebury said that he would take the issue up with the Porvoo Primates when he met them.
Bishop Newcome, while sympathetic to the amendments, referred to the words of Sally Phillips, the mother of a son with Down’s syndrome, who told a fringe event that the Motion had been “excellently crafted to be as uncontroversial balanced and inclusive as possible”, and cautioned against anything that might imperil its passing.
At the final vote, all three houses were unanimous. Before it was taken, after speeches lamenting that the Synod had not heard directly from people with Down’s syndrome, members watched a film of young people with Down’s syndrome saying thank you.
Read the full debate here.
You can also listen to a roundup of the General Synod on the Church Times Podcast
The motion in full:
That this Synod, valuing all human life equally and celebrating the advances in medical technology which help alleviate human suffering:
(a) affirm the dignity and full humanity of people born with Down’s syndrome;
(b) request dioceses, parishes and the NCIs to work to review their activities and the provisions they make for people with Down’s syndrome and their families, to ensure a real welcome for all;
(c) support the continued development of ante-natal care including access to information that new, safe screening techniques provide;
and (d) call on Her Majesty’s Government and relevant professional bodies to ensure that parents who have been told that their unborn child has Down’s syndrome will be given comprehensive, unbiased information with regard to this condition, and be provided with full information about the support available and the future prospects of those with this condition, with no implied preference for any outcome.