Detailed statistics on the number of late abortions of “less than perfect” foetuses must be released, the High Court ruled yesterday, despite fears over the safety of the women and doctors involved.
The decision will force the Government to publish individual figures on how many abortions are carried out after 24 weeks on foetuses with physical abnormalities, including some relatively minor problems such as a cleft palate or club foot.
Anti-abortion campaigners welcomed the decision last night, saying it was a step towards redressing the “outrageous” imbalance between the rights of the mother and the unborn child.
Family planning groups described it as “deeply worrying and unethical”, saying women could be identified by their publication and doctors could be “harassed”.
The hearing followed an Information Rights Tribunal, which in October 2009 decided that “sensitive” abortion statistics should be released to the Pro-Life Alliance, which had been pressing for them since 2005. The Department of Health took the matter to the High Court.
James Eadie QC, for the DoH, argued on Monday that publishing the figures could lead to “awful” consequences for patients.
But Mr Justice Cranston ruled that the tribunal had made no error in law in concluding that the risk of identification was “extremely remote” and dismissed the department’s bid. He also said the release of the material to the alliance was necessary to inform the public debate.
Abortion on “social grounds” is only allowed in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, but it is legal to abort a foetus right up to birth if there is a “substantial risk” of it being “seriously handicapped”.
The health department stopped publishing a full breakdown of figures for the previous year in 2003. The last set of statistics, for 2001, showed that a foetus was aborted after 24 weeks because it had a cleft palate, a defect surgeons can in most cases remedy.
The Rev Joanna Jepson, a Church of England curate who was born with an overhanging upper jaw, complained to police. The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute, saying doctors had acted in good faith, but the case led the department to stop publishing detailed data.Since 2005 it has published figures for categories in which the number of abortions is 10 or more, the same year the alliance lodged a freedom of information request culminating in yesterday’s ruling.
Last night the department did not rule out taking the case to the Court of Appeal. Mr Justice Cranston gave it leave to appeal. A spokesman said: “The department will consider the implications of this judgment and the options available.”
Josephine Quintavalle of the alliance said the organisation was “over the moon”. She hoped it would lead to a reduction in late abortions of foetuses which were “less than perfect”.
Sexual health charities called for an appeal. Simon Blake, chief executive of Brook, said: “The potential for women, particularly young women, to be identified is deeply worrying and unethical.”