Twirling the platinum wedding ring around her finger, Heidi Crowter is as happy as you’d expect any new bride to be.
Her home is full of mementoes of her wedding to partner James in July. Photos of the big day are on display in the sitting room of the couple’s two-bedroom flat. And her wedding dress, all froth and tulle, is still in her wardrobe.
‘It was the happiest day of my life. I can’t believe I’ve got such a wonderful husband.’ Meanwhile, James’s love and pride in his wife is palpable.
It is a picture of marital contentment which makes it all the more extraordinary that she is engaged in a hugely controversial legal battle — one she sees as essential to prove that her life is as valuable as any other young bride’s.
Heidi Crowter, 25, who lives in Coventry with husband James, 27, is campaigning to change the law, so that foetuses with non-fatal disabilities such as Down’s are treated like other foetuses. Pictured: Heidi with husband James
Heidi, 25, has Down’s syndrome, as does James, 27. When we meet at her home in Coventry, she is disarmingly outspoken with an infectious giggle. Yet she is also intensely serious when it comes to discussing the changes she wants to make to our preconceptions of people with Down’s — and to the law on abortion.
Currently, abortions after 24 weeks and up until birth are allowed in England, Scotland and Wales under three circumstances: if the mother’s life is in danger; if she is at risk of grave physical or mental injury; or if there is a severe foetal abnormality. Down’s falls into this last category, although the majority of cases are detected much earlier in pregnancy.
Still, between 2010 and 2018, 124 foetuses were aborted after 24 weeks following a Down’s diagnosis. Heidi sees this as a deep injustice that calls into question the value of her own happy, fulfilled life — and those of other disabled people.
‘How can anyone say my life is less valuable than anyone else’s?’ she says with complete frankness. ‘When babies such as me can be aborted up to birth, it makes me feel like I’m better off dead.’
The issue is set to become even bigger thanks to an upcoming storyline on ITV soap Emmerdale in which leading characters Laurel and Jai decide to terminate a pregnancy after a Down’s diagnosis.
More than 26,000 people have signed a petition calling for Emmerdale not to portray Laurel and Jai (pictured) making a decision to terminate a pregnancy after a Down’s diagnosis
More than 26,000 people have signed a petition calling for the storyline to be scrapped, while charities and MPs have written to ITV boss Dame Carolyn McCall. Nevertheless the first scenes, in which Laurel discovers she’s pregnant, will air this evening with Emmerdale insisting that it has been produced in a sensitive way and in consultation with parents with children who have Down’s syndrome, medical professionals and groups such as Antenatal Results and Choices.
Aspokesman for the soap said: ‘The full context of Laurel and Jai’s story will be portrayed because they only reach this heartbreaking decision after much soul-searching. Emmerdale felt the story of thousands of couples who make this choice every year, feeling unable to talk about it, needed to be told.’
Heidi, however, doesn’t see it that way. ‘I’m so upset. Having this horrible story gives such a terrible message,’ she says. ‘It makes me feel like I should never have been born.
‘I won’t be watching. But I feel angry that there might be people with Down’s who will watch and feel worthless.’
Actress Sally Phillips — best known for BBC1’s Miranda and whose 12-year-old son Olly has Down’s — has branded the show ‘irresponsible’.
Actress Sally Phillips whose 12-year-old son Olly (pictured) has Down’s, has branded Emmerdale ‘irresponsible’
Sally is also supporting Heidi in her campaign to change the law so that foetuses with non-fatal disabilities such as Down’s are treated like other foetuses. ‘Given advances in medical care and quality of life for people with Down’s, the different right to life is beginning to look, not just dated, but barbaric,’ says Sally.
Heidi is the first person with Down’s to take the UK government to court and is supported in her legal case by her family and the charity Don’t Screen Us Out who see confident, chatty Heidi as the perfect poster girl.
Heidi’s fellow claimant, Maire Lea-Wilson from West London, has a one-year-old son with Down’s called Aidan. She resisted pressure to terminate her pregnancy after a scan at 34 weeks detected her son’s condition.
Now the question will be argued in the High Court, after judges gave the green light for Heidi’s challenge against Health Secretary Matt Hancock to be heard on the grounds of discrimination against disabled people.
Heidi claims the law amounts to a breach of her human rights. She is stepping into a fraught arena, with any tightening of abortion law potentially seen as a threat to women’s right to control their own bodies. Women in Northern Ireland only won the right to have abortions at all this summer, after decades of legal struggle. And, in some parts of Europe, women’s rights are going backwards. New laws in Poland last month ban nearly all abortions and have fuelled fears that any changes to the rules could be the thin end of the wedge.
Born in July 1995, it was touch and go whether Heidi would survive because she needed an operation to fix a hole in her heart. Pictured: Heidi and James on their wedding day
But Heidi is adamant she is not looking to ban abortions. She simply wants parity for disabled people. ‘I respect their choice but I don’t agree with it,’ she says firmly. ‘This is all about there being equality in the womb.’
Heidi was born to parents who refused prenatal testing for Down’s; they already knew they would choose to keep their baby no matter what. Still, Liz, a nursery teacher, 53, and Steve, 52, who runs a car sales business, admit that didn’t lessen their shock and anxiety when Heidi was diagnosed within days of her birth in July 1995.
Down’s is caused by the presence of an extra chromosome and carries an increased risk of health problems. It was touch and go whether Heidi would survive as she needed an operation at two months to fix a hole in her heart.
Heidi is clearly doted on by her parents and two older brothers: Dan, 28, and Tim, 26, and younger sister, Suzie, 23. She attended a mainstream comprehensive in Coventry, where she passed some GCSEs. ‘I was bullied a little, but I had friends who stood up for me. Mum told me to hold my head up high and that’s what I try to remember,’ she says.
After school, she studied hairdressing and secured a part-time paid job in a children’s salon in Leamington Spa.
Heidi and James (pictured) who met in October 2018, wed on July 4 at Hillfield Church, Coventry, in front of 30 guests despite the pandemic
She’s proud of her smart little flat in a complex for disabled adults, a few miles from her parents’ home where she lives largely independently with the help of three carers.
It was through her parents that Heidi met James in October 2017. ‘When I first saw him I couldn’t believe how handsome he was,’ says Heidi. ‘It was love at first sight,’ adds James. He proposed in December 2018 — going down on one knee in front of both sets of parents and, despite the pandemic, they wed on July 4 at Hillfield Church, Coventry, in front of 30 guests. The ceremony was livestreamed and 1,000 people watched online. Their wedding has now been viewed more than 35,000 times.
Since then, Heidi has been inundated with messages from other people with Down’s who, like her, are enjoying fulfilled, independent lives. ‘I feel fantastic that we are getting somewhere,’ beams Heidi. ‘I may look and sound a little different but I have the same dreams and hopes.’
while it is possible for couples with Down’s to have children, it is simply too dangerous for Heidi to become pregnant because of her weakened heart, so James has had a vasectomy.
‘It’s upsetting, because I love children,’ she says. ‘But you have to make the most of what you have. And my life is wonderful.’
Wherever one stands on the complexities of Heidi’s campaign, it’s impossible not to admire her unfailing good humour and zest for life.
For more information on Heidi’s court case go to: crowdjustice.com/case/ downright discrimination/