Ministers in secrecy row over late abortion figures

The Department of Health (DoH) is facing allegations of hushing up the number of late abortions taking place on grounds of disability such as cleft palate or club foot.

Official figures group abortions for these conditions with other abnormalities, and do not specify how many of these took place after 24 weeks.

The Pro-Life Alliance has tried to use the Freedom of Information Act to uncover the true breakdown, and the Information Commissioner has ruled in its favour.

However, the DoH is appealing against the Commissioner’s decision, arguing that releasing the figures could lead to individuals involved being identified.

One leading obstetrician has described the suppression of the figures as “disgraceful”.

The Abortion Act 1967 means it is legal to abort a baby at any time until birth if it is at serious risk of mental or physical abnormality, with growing concerns that this ground is being used to terminate ‘imperfect’ pregnancies.

During 2007, more than 200 foetuses were aborted for abnormalities which could include club feet or cleft palate, but figures for each condition and which pregnancies were terminated after 24 weeks are withheld.

The DoH keeps back the abortion figures for these conditions if they are fewer than ten. The policy was adopted after the abortion in 2001 of a baby with a cleft palate at 28 weeks’ gestation led to a public outcry and a legal challenge from Joanna Jepson, who was herself born with a congenital jaw defect.

The DoH must now defend its position to the Information Tribunal, at a cost of £40,000 to the tax payer.

It has also invoked a legal procedure reportedly designed to curb the rights of terrorist suspects in order to keep the Pro-Life Alliance away from the hearing itself.

A spokesman said, “we consider it crucial that there is no public disclosure of this information in advance of a decision from the Tribunal.

“For this reason the Department of Health has requested that all or part of the hearing is heard in private.”

Professor Stuart Campbell, the obstetrician behind the 3D scan images of babies ‘walking in the womb’, said: “It is a disgraceful situation for this data to be suppressed.

“This is not about whether one agrees with abortion. These statistics used to be published, now they are being withheld.

“Transparency is the essence of medicine. If we don’t have that, all sorts of wrongdoing can go on.”

Related Resources