Monday 31 October 2016

Biotechnology Company seeks to profit from search-and-destroy technology for babies with Down’s syndrome

The government yesterday approved a new test for pregnant women that will make it much easier to detect and destroy babies with Down's Syndrome (DS) (see previous CMF blog posts here, here, here and here).

According to the BBC, the non-invasive prenatal test (NIPT) will be rolled out by the NHS from 2018.

NIPT involves taking a sample of blood from the pregnant woman which is then examined for abnormal fetal DNA. It is called 'non-invasive' because it doesn't involve 'invading' the mother's womb. It therefore carries no risk of miscarrying a 'normal' pregnancy.

It is claimed that NIPT will cut the number of women who need invasive tests like amniocentesis and chorion villus biopsy, which carry a 1-2% risk of miscarriage.

The move to make NIPT available on the NHS is extremely controversial and has led to the launch of the ‘Don’t screen us out’ campaign (DSUO). DSUO describes itself ‘as a grass-roots initiative supported by a collection of people with Down’s syndrome, families and Down’s Syndrome advocate groups led by Saving Downs Syndrome’.

They say that, given the fact that 90% of babies who are prenatally diagnosed with Down’s syndrome are currently aborted, the result will be ‘a profound increase in the number of children with Down’s syndrome screened out by termination’. 

new study published in the British Medical Journal on 4 July 2016 backs up their concerns. 

The lead author professor Lyn Chitty and her colleagues calculate that in an annual UK screening population of 698,500, offering NIPT (as a contingent test to women with a Down’s syndrome screening risk of at least 1/150) would increase detection by 195 cases with 3,368 fewer invasive tests but, crucially, only 17 fewer procedure related miscarriages.

If rolling out NIPT will result in 195 more babies with Down’s syndrome being detected, then assuming that 90% will then be aborted (the standard quoted figure), that means almost 180 more abortions for Down’s syndrome each year.

Most people are unaware that abortion is legal in Britain right up until birth for babies with disabilities. Last year a record number of 230 babies with special needs were aborted beyond 24 weeks, the age at which most will survive in a neonatal unit if born prematurely.

In total last year there were 3,213 babies with disabilities aborted in this country, over 1,000 of them more than halfway through pregnancy. 689 of these had Down’s syndrome. 11 had cleft lip or palate. 

Sally Phillips drew attention to the issue dramatically in a BBC documentary ‘A World Without Down’s Syndrome’, which aired on 5 October. ‘What’s so dreadful, to the world, about Down’s syndrome? she asked. The Bridget Jones actress, who has a son with the condition, questioned the ethics of pregnancy screening and abortion and asked why affected babies are viewed as a ‘burden’ in society. The programme understandably prompted fierce debate. 

On Friday 21 October, Lord Shinkwin’s Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords. Lord Shinkwin (pictured below) is arguing that the current situation is profoundly discriminatory - eugenic even.  He wants to remove ‘ground E’ (1(1)(d)), which enables any baby with a significant risk of a serious abnormality to be aborted, from the Abortion Act altogether. 

At the weekend, 279 medical professionals signed a letter accusing the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) of 'advocating that women with a prenatal diagnosis of Down's syndrome should end their pregnancy'. They said: 'We utterly reject the implicit premise that the value of a human being is based on their economic contribution to society.' (see full text here)

The move to introduce NIPT into the NHS is also backed by powerful commercial interests.

In March 2015 the St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust revealed that it was joining forces with the British firm, Premaitha Health to bring in this new screening test. Premaitha, which describes the test (marketed as ‘Iona’) as its ‘flagship product’, along with its shareholders, now stands to make a lot of money. Millions of pounds in fact. Each NIPT test costs between £400 and £900 pounds. Do the maths!

Premaitha admitted this much in a 
press release earlier this year: 'Premaitha anticipates that the endorsement by the NHS will accelerate private payer market growth in the UK'. More importantly, it will put them in pole position to pitch for NHS hospital tenders. 

On 27 October at its AGM the company was even bolder. Non-executive Chairman Adam Reynolds, claimed that ‘the international landscape for non-invasive prenatal testing is evolving very considerably in Premaitha’s favour’. He added that the company was ‘exceptionally well placed to win significant market share as awareness of the availability of NIPT increases’.

In the light of all this, people may be surprised to hear that Premaitha’s share price rose by only 10.81% today to 10.25p. This is in spite of brokers Finn Cap and Panmure Gordon having target prices of 20p and 24p respectively on the stock.

But in an ironic twist, enthusiasm for buying the shares has been curbed by unresolved legal action. US biotechnology giant Illumina has launched patent infringement proceedings against Premaitha and others.

Nevertheless Premaitha has ‘absolutely no doubt that the developed world is moving’ towards ‘widescale adoption of NIPT’ and that it ‘is well placed to gain a large share of the market’.

So here we have it – a global drama involving pregnant women anxious about having disabled children, campaigners concerned about the eradication of people with disabilities, millions of pounds of taxpayers' money up for grabs, biotechnology companies hungry for profits and salivating shareholders seeking a quick buck.

But, caught in this toxic web of vested interests, the real victims in this whole drama are babies with a common genetic abnormality whose eradication will lift a perceived burden from some and make others very rich indeed.

The real test of an administration is in what it values – and in particular how it treats the most vulnerable members of society, especially when it costs something emotionally and financially to do so.

The British government, by this reckoning, is not heading in a good direction. Nor are biotech companies and their shareholders who are keen to profit from the search and destroy conveyor belt.

But disabled people and their families will not go quietly and I suspect we have not heard the last of this yet.  

Friday 21 October 2016

The Culture of Life - Keynote Speech for Alliance of Prolife Students Celebration and Fundraiser

I gave the keynote address at Alliance of Pro-life Students Celebration and Fundraiser in London on 20 October 2016. Here is a full transcript.

Tomorrow, 21 October, Lord Shinkwin’s Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill will have its second reading in the House of Lords.

Most people are unaware that abortion is legal in Britain right up until birth for babies with disabilities. Last year a record number of 230 babies with special needs were aborted beyond 24 weeks, the age at which most will survive in a neonatal unit if born prematurely.

In total last year there were 3,213 babies with disabilities aborted in this country, over 1,000 of them more than halfway through pregnancy. 689 of these had Down’s syndrome. 11 had cleft lip or palate.

Lord Shinkwin is arguing that this is profoundly discriminatory - eugenic even.  He wants to remove ‘ground E’ (1(1)(d)), which enables any baby with a significant risk of a serious abnormality to be aborted, from the Abortion Act altogether.

He is supported by the ‘Were all Equal’ campaign – who argue that the current law is out of date – it promotes inequality, reinforces negative stereotypes and is inconsistent with disability discrimination legislation for after birth.

One of their most powerful spokespeople is actress and Bridget Jones star Sally Phillips, who has argued powerfully that children like her eleven-year-old son Ollie, who has Down’s syndrome, have as much right to live as anyone else.

But, of course, the present law also discriminates on the basis of age.

We would be horrified if a woman could have her newborn baby daughter put down simply because she was the result of an unplanned pregnancy, posed an economic burden or was socially inconvenient.

But the law allows exactly this for babies just a few weeks younger – 200,000 of them every year in Britain. Under the Abortion Act over eight million preborn babies have been ‘terminated’ since 1967 – one in every five pregnancies ends in abortion and one in every three British women will have an abortion: eight million British citizens who were never given the chance to live.

This year the ‘We Trust Women’ campaign was launched by pro-abortion activists aiming to decriminalise abortion altogether. A new bill attempting to liberalise the law in Northern Ireland was lodged on 19 October. There are similar moves already underway on the Isle of Man.

Back in 2008 a whole host of amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill were tabled in the Westminster Parliament. MPs were seeking to remove the two doctor provision, allow nurse and home abortions, allow abortion on demand up until three months gestation and extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. 

Thankfully all these measures failed when the economic crisis struck, leading the prime minister Gordon Brown to cut time in debating abortion amendments in order to save the nations’ banks.

Last year 38% of all abortions were repeats and 95 British women had their eighth abortion or greater – evidence that abortion is simply being used as a form of birth control.

Over 98% of British abortions have been carried out on mental health grounds although, according to a major recent systematic review, there is actually no medical evidence that continuing a pregnancy poses any greater risk to a mother’s mental health than having an abortion. If anything the opposite is true. This means that 98% of British abortions are technically illegal and that the 500 doctors every day who put their signature to a statutory document ticking the mental health box are actually committing perjury.

And yet the law is not upheld. The police do not investigate. The CPS does not prosecute. Courts do not convict or sentence and parliament turns a blind eye.

In fact judges rule against those who attempt to apply the law.

Aisling Hubert, who attempted to bring a private prosecution against two doctors, who authorised abortion purely on grounds that the baby was female, has been ordered to pay court costs of £47,000.

People who maintain silent vigils outside abortion clinics or offer counselling to women with crisis pregnancies are threatened and intimidated and driven out of the public square.

And sadly the medical profession have colluded with this whole sorry state of affairs.
Abortion is against the Hippocratic Oath, against the Declaration of Geneva and against the International Code of Medical Ethics. In 1947 the British Medical Association called it the ‘greatest crime’.

And yet now the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists calls abortion ‘a basic healthcare need’ and the British Medical Association is pushing to liberalise the law even further. Meanwhile, the General Medical Council (GMC) refuses to give up the names of 67 doctors who are known illegally to have pre-signed abortion authorisation forms without even seeing the women who would use them.   

In 1967 Britain was the first Western country outside Scandinavia to legalise abortion. And in so doing this country paved the way for the legalisation of abortion throughout the English speaking world.

Today, authorities quote 43 million abortions as the annual figure worldwide.

This is an astounding figure. 55 million people died in the entire five years of the Second World War. 57 million people each year from all causes other than abortion. This means that of every 100 human deaths on this planet 43 of them involve babies in the womb being killed by healthcare workers.

There is no one more innocent, more vulnerable and killed in greater numbers than the baby in the womb. Ironically, what should be the safest sanctuary on earth has become a more dangerous place that even Mosul or Aleppo.

The right to life is the most fundamental of all human rights and the right on which all other rights are based. It is meaningless to speak of the right to food and clothing, the right to free speech, the right to education, the right to own property, the right to fair compensation for work, the right to freedom from harassment, the right not to be abused or sexually violated - if you are not alive. The right to life is the foundation on which all other rights are built.

So when we are talking about abortion we are talking about the deprivation of the most fundamental of all rights from the most innocent, vulnerable and helpless of all human beings for the most trivial of all reasons and in the greatest of all numbers.

That alone must make abortion one of the most serious human rights abuses in the world today. And also the least defended.

The Alliance of Prolife Students supports the right to life of all human beings from fertilisation until natural death. In so doing it stands against discrimination on the basis of mental and physical disability, against discrimination on the basis of age, against discrimination on the basis of size and against discrimination on the basis of neurological capacity.

This is the only possible position to take for those who are opposed to all discrimination.  And if consistently held it must also lead to a defence of human embryos.

Human embryos from the moment of fertilisation are human lives. They are not potential human lives. They are human lives with potential. They are potential children and adults. As human lives they are worthy of our empathy, wonder, compassion and protection including legal protection.

Sadly, but not surprisingly in the wake of the Abortion Act, the first Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 rendered human embryos non-persons and deprived them of legal protection.

The HFE Act made it legal to freeze, experiment upon, select and dispose of human embryos. In 2012 the Daily Telegraph reported on 20 years of this activity.  More than 3.5 million embryos created, 840,000 put in storage, 5,900 set aside for research, 1.4 million implanted – of which fewer than one in six led to pregnancy and 1.7 million were discarded unused.

The Warnock report (1984) which led to the HFE Act of 1990 said that the human embryo had a ‘special status’, but from these figures it is evident that the human embryo in practice has no status at all.

It is true that IVF and related techniques have led to many childless couples being able to have children. But the figures demonstrate that a large proportion of the embryos which have been created in British laboratories in the last 20 years are not even given a chance to live. It is right to seek treatments for infertility but we cannot and must not allow the end to justify the means. And we must be pursuing infertility treatments which respect the humanity of the human embryo.

We should also be promoting adoption.
In 2009, which is the last year for which I have adoption figures, there 203,444 abortions on UK residents and just 91 adoptions involving babies under one year. 91!

That’s a ratio of 2,235 abortions performed for every baby adopted. 

And yet when Martin Narey, the adoption czar, suggested in 2011 that adoption was a ‘golden option’ and a real alternative to abortion he faced howls of derision from the politically correct.

Baby adoption is a win-win option because it provides an unwanted baby with a loving home and a childless couple with a baby to love and care for.

We know that abortion kills babies. But it also hurts women.

I first came face to face with the hurt caused women when I was training as a general surgeon in New Zealand.

I was on acute call and was asked to see a 14 year old girl with abdominal pain.  Her GP wondered if she had appendicitis but it was very clear on examining her that she did not need surgery.

I asked her if she had had any abortions or miscarriages and she looked very uncomfortable and glanced awkwardly at her father who was in the cubicle. So I asked her again later when he was no longer present and she burst into tears.

It turned out that she had become pregnant to her 15 year old boyfriend and that her father had threatened her that if she did not have an abortion he would take her boyfriend to court for carnal knowledge. So, wanting to protect her boyfriend from prosecution, she reluctantly consented.

She then told me that she had been plagued with guilt over the abortion ever since, and was often tearful in class but unable to tell anyone why. ‘Whenever I think about the abortion I get this pain in my tummy that I have now’, she said. ‘You are the first person that I have ever told about it and I don’t know what to do.’

We hear a lot about choice from the pro-abortion lobby but the reality for many women, like this poor girl, is that they feel they have no choice. They choose an abortion to protect other people – parents, boyfriends, spouses – because they don’t want to create a burden for others. Sometimes, as in this tragic case, they are threatened and coerced to have an abortion against their will.

There are some wonderful initiatives in the UK offering support to pregnant women in crisis – food, money, emotional support, counselling and antenatal care -  they are doing a fantastic job and need our strongest support.

This young lady was the tip of a huge iceberg of women damaged by abortion – many of them suffer from guilt and grief – but many also have physical complications – bleeding, infections, mental health problems.  

There are over 70 scientific studies now showing a link between abortion and premature birth in subsequent pregnancies. And there is an ongoing debate about the link between abortion and breast cancer – of three major scientific meta-analyses – studies of studies – two support a link.

Abortion kills babies and hurts women. And it is also driven by powerful commercial interests. 68% of abortions are now carried out by independent facilities like BPAS and Marie Stopes but are fully funded by the British taxpayer.

Abortion also has huge demographic effects.

We know that because of female feticide in China and India there are now 160 million missing women in the world. This means that many men face no possibility of ever finding a female partner and this alone has had a huge effect in fuelling sexual abuse, pornography and human trafficking.

Abortion in Russia - there were at one point two abortions for every live birth - led to such a shortage of young people that Vladimir Putin sought to tighten the abortion laws and provide financial incentives to women to keep their babies.

He was worried that there would not be enough people in the working population to support the growing number of elderly people.

In Japan in 1950 35% of people were under the age of 15 and 5% were over the age of 65. This is a healthy demographic which ensures that families and strong and that vulnerable people are well provided for.

By 2050 the figures will be reversed - only 8% will be under 15 and 40% will be over 65. This is an extremely unhealthy demographic which places more pressure on families and resources. Add in unemployment, economic recession and family breakdown and you have a very toxic brew indeed. 
We see a similar pattern all over the Western world – fewer children, growing numbers of elderly people, growing debt and family breakdown.

This has led some commentators to make the chilling prediction that the generation that killed its children through abortion – will in turn be killed by its children – through euthanasia.

Vulnerable elderly, sick and disabled people are at great risk from the advance of legalised euthanasia.

Euthanasia is now legal in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Canada. Assisted suicide – euthanasia one step back – is legal in Switzerland and in five US states – the latest being California. It is said that what California does today the world does tomorrow.

The Democrat Party is working hand in glove with Compassion and Choices – the pro-assisted suicide pressure group – to legalise assisted suicide in the US state by state. When they capture enough states they will go for a Supreme Court case to impose it everywhere – as happened with the Roe vs Wade judgement on abortion in 1973 and the Obergefell judgement for same sex marriage in 2014.

In the UK since 1992 we have been fighting the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide. We have been amazingly successful in both parliament and the courts.

There have been over a dozen attempts to legalise assisted suicide through British parliaments in the last twelve years. Every single one of them has spectacularly failed. Our biggest victories ever were over the Harvie Bill in Scotland and the Marris Bill in Westminster just last year. Marris’s Bill, which supposedly had more safeguards than any bill in history was defeated by a massive 330 votes to 118 with only the Green Party supporting it.

MPs from all sides of the house were convinced by the arguments that the bill was not safe. 

Vulnerable people would inevitably have been put under pressure to choose early death so as not to be an emotional and financial burden on families and carers. MPs saw that the right to die can so easily become the duty to die.

We have seen this worked out across the North Sea. In the Netherlands euthanasia numbers have increased by between 10 and 20% every year so that now over 4% of all deaths are due to euthanasia. What started with the terminally ill has now spread to the chronically ill. What started with physical illness has spread to those with dementia and mental health problems. What started with adults now involves children. Euthanasia is legal for twelve year olds and babies with disabilities are being euthanised under the Groningen protocol.

In Belgium they are practising organ donation euthanasia. Half of Belgium’s euthanasia nurses have killed without consent even though both nurse euthanasia and involuntary euthanasia are illegal. But a third of cases in Belgium are now involuntary and yet there has been not one conviction. We should have learnt the lessons from abortion.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide cannot be controlled. Once you legalise it for some there will inevitably be incremental extension as more cases which stretch the legal boundaries are brought to bear.

It’s only for the terminally ill we hear. It’s only for adults. It’s only for those unbearably suffering. No. It is clear from what we see now in other jurisdictions that it is only the beginning. 

We have shown in Britain how this can be fought. We have shown that when people of faith and no faith, when disabled people and able bodied people stand together and marshal strong arguments we can win. We have proved that with assisted suicide. But the issue will not go away and we can only keep on winning and push back if we win the battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation.

This is why the work of the Alliance of Prolife Students is so crucial and why their vision to build, support and connect prolife societies in universities is so important.

They are in a unique position to equip students with up to date prolife education and resources. They have a unique mission to build pro-life communities in the universities and other tertiary instructions of England, Wales and Scotland.

They need to build on their success and momentum of the past few years and take their movement to the next level.

They must not be intimidated. It will need courage, good leadership and resources – both human and financial. And they will need our support to stand alongside us and to help fulfil their vision of a society where the value of human life is always affirmed, a society free from unethical practices in science and medicine.

Let me close by telling you the story of another 15 year old girl who into my care after a road traffic accident. I was up all night putting her broken limbs back together. The next day the nurses did a pregnancy test and found she was pregnant. They arranged for her to have an abortion.

I didn’t find out until after she had left the hospital. So I wrote her a letter. I told her that I understood that she must feel desperate. But I urged her to think again. I said that abortion may seem like the only way out in a crisis pregnancy but that it only exchanges one problem for a whole set of new problems. I said she had three choices – abortion, adoption or keeping the baby – and that anyone of them would change her life for ever. I offered to help her in any way I could.

She came back to the fracture clinic six weeks later. Whilst I was reviewing her x-rays she was on the edge of her chair wanting to tell me something.  Eventually, she could hold it in no longer and blurted out, ‘I’m keeping the baby. I just wanted you to know. Thank you for your letter. I showed it to my gran and she said she would support me. My boyfriend did too. I’m keeping the baby.’

Two years later I received a card in the post. When I opened it, out fell the picture of a little boy. There was a note which said, ‘You probably don’t remember me but I was the pregnant girl who broke her leg that you operated on in hospital. I just want to thank you for helping me avoid making what would have been the worst decision of my whole life. This is my son. He is my pride and joy. I wanted you to have this picture. Thank you so much.’

I know it was not an easy decision for her. But I’m sure that in choosing life she made the best decision – both for her and for her little boy, and for her whole family: because life affirming decisions are always the best decisions.

We need to stand for life. We need to resist the culture of death. We need to be a voice for those who have no voice whether they are embryos, elderly or disabled people or preborn babies.

We need to be trained. We need to put in the hours to know the arguments and produce the resources. Overall we need to be willing make a stand and be courageous. We must not allow ourselves to be silenced or intimidated. The battle will not be easy but we need to stand together and fight it. And we need to equip the next generation of prolife soldiers to take the baton from us.

That is why the work of the Alliance of Prolife Students is so important. I urge you to support them.  

Thank you.

For a video of this talk, and opportunities to give to the Alliance of Pro-Life Students, please visit their website