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Ireland abortion debate: No campaigners fear eradication of people with Down's syndrome

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The issue of Down's syndrome has been front and centre of Ireland's abortion referendum.

The No campaign claims prenatal screening teamed with legal abortion would lead to the eradication of people with the condition if the Irish constitution is changed.

They point to countries like Iceland, where they suggest the number of foetuses diagnosed with Down's syndrome aborted is close to 100%.

In Reykjavik's main hospital, between the 11th and 14th week of the pregnancy women are offered a screening where the foetus is checked for abnormalities.

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Video: A nation divided: Ireland's abortion dilemma

This screening can, among other things, detect whether there is an increased likelihood of the foetus having Down's syndrome.

And although the women are not pressured to have this screening, they are urged to do so.

Most people have 23 pairs of chromosomes, but people with Down's have an extra copy of chromosome 21, which means they develop differently and have varying levels of learning disability.

Some children with Down's have few health problems, but certain medical complications - such as heart, gut, hearing, or thyroid conditions - are more common in people with Down's.

Image: Hulda Hjartardóttir said abortion figures did not paint a clear picture

Hulda Hjartardóttir, chief physician at the maternity ward of the National University Hospital however told Sky News that the 100% figure is being misrepresented.

She pointed to statistics that show between 15% to 20% don't undertake screening and where there is an increased likelihood of the foetus having Down's syndrome, again 15% to 20% decided to go ahead with the pregnancy.

The result, that children with Down's syndrome are indeed born in Iceland though their numbers, comparative to Ireland are low.

Those statistics have led the president of Iceland's Down's Syndrome Association, to fear for the future.

"It makes me really sad, as a parent with a girl who has Down's syndrome and as a human being," said Thordis Ingadottir.

"Iceland, is the cradle of equality and women's rights, of feminism and so I am pro-choice, absolutely, but what I'm really against is discrimination."

Image: The Yes campaign demonstrating ahead of Friday's vote

Back in Ireland and some parents like Darach Ó Séaghdha, whose daughter has Down's syndrome, wishes his child was not part of the campaign.

He said: "The emphasis on vulnerable looking children and the emphasis on people with Down's syndrome as victims hasn't been helpful.

"I and other parents don't like that this is the only context we see kids like them, I wish they could see more kids like them in cartoons and television shows.

"We are as divided on abortion as any other randomly selected group of people."

Image: The abortion debate has split the country

The Irish prime minister has described the campaign as simply wrong.

While the health minister, Simon Harris, has also attacked the tactics used: "I think it's quite upsetting. I think it's very upsetting to say to people with Down's syndrome in Ireland that you've only been born in Ireland because of the Eighth Amendment.

"The facts don't bear that out.

"I think it's actually quite a disgusting thing to say to the parents of children and, indeed, adult children with Down's syndrome. We've specifically excluded disability as a ground in the legislation."

Pro-life campaigners though have defended their campaign.

Image: Love Both's Cora Sherlock said she was 'horrified' by the prospect of a Yes win

Cora Sherlock, from Love Both told Sky News: "The average abortion rate of babies with Down's syndrome throughout the world, not just in Iceland, not just in Denmark, not just in England and Wales where it is 90%, there is a global downwards trend."

When asked if the No campaign was pursuing "Project Fear" Mrs Sherlock said: "Am I afraid? About what could come under this proposal, absolutely, I am horrified by it."

As this campaign draws to a close, the use of Down's syndrome has proved to be an emotive and difficult one for both sides.

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