Q: What about ‘Fatal Foetal Abnormality’?

A: The debate about abortion where an unborn baby has a life-shortening condition is not a medical one.

It is about how we look out for one another as a society. Anyone can have a disability, a handicap or a terminal illness and it can come in old age, middle age, in childhood or even before we are born. In each of these challenging situations we have to look after one another in a way that respects the dignity of every human life.

The term “fatal foetal abnormality”, for example, is grossly misleading [1]. It is intended to indicate how in a number of conditions the baby will die either in utero or almost immediately after birth. But doctors have no way of knowing how long a child diagnosed with one of these conditions will live. They could live for months and even years after birth. Studies have found over 70% of children conceived with anencephaly have live births, with roughly a third of these babies living for at least two days [2] [3].

In Ireland today there are parents who have returned home after aborting their baby with a terminal illness only to learn for the first time about the existence of perinatal hospice care as an alternative to abortion. It is simply intolerable that this is happening. The primary reason is the sustained media focus on abortion in these situations with little or no discussion on positive alternatives.

Instead of pressuring parents to go down the road of abortion, health care professionals should be given additional resources to provide high quality palliative care to facilitate families in sharing those precious moments with their baby for whatever length of time he or she lives [4].

When politicians or doctors support abortion for babies with a disability, a handicap or a terminal illness, they are making a negative judgement on the value of those babies’ lives. No one would dream of saying the law should not protect the right to life of, say, a three year old with a disability. Why then is it deemed acceptable to campaign for abortion where an unborn baby has a potentially life-shortening condition?

In Britain, 90% of babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome in the womb are aborted [5]. Abortion is legal in Britain for any detectable disability through all nine months of pregnancy.  In Denmark there is a goal to make it a Down Syndrome free country by 2030. In Iceland, shockingly, they have already reached that target.

In Ireland, we have a culture of equality and inclusion that we can be proud of. Nowhere is this more evident than in the work of the Special Olympics. Let’s extend supports to families and continue to improve outcomes and quality of life for people with Down syndrome and other disabilities, instead of following other countries down the destructive road of abortion.


[1] Fatally flawed? A review and ethical analysis of lethal congenital malformations. Wilkinson DJ1, Thiele P, Watkins A, De Crespigny L. BJOG. 2012 Oct;119(11):1302-8.

[2] “Incompatible with Life”: Does Article 40.3.3 Permit Abortion for “Fatal Foetal Abnormality”? Simons, Caroline, BCL LLM Medico-Legal Journal of Ireland, 2015, 21 (1), 11-4.

[3] Report about the birth and life of babies with anencephaly, Monika Jaquier (2006),, M Jaquier, A Klein, E Bolthauser, ‘Spontaneous pregnancy outcome after prenatal diagnosis of anencephaly’ (2006) 113(8) British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 951-953.

[4] Evaluation of the Children’s Palliative Care Programme (CPCP). A jointly funded programme of work arising from Palliative Care for Children with Life-limiting, Conditions – A National Policy, SUMMARY REPORT, Dr Joanne Jordan GEN Research & Deirdre Fullerton Insights Health and Social Research, (2016).

[5] Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion on the Grounds of Disability, UK, 2013 (pdf).