Court ruling prompts late abortion data release

high court
Image caption Government lost the battle over abortion figures at the High Court

The government has published data on the number of late abortions carried out in England and Wales, after the High Court ordered it to do so.

The ProLife Alliance anti-abortion group has been fighting for details of the medical reasons for abortions over 24 weeks to be released since 2005.

But the government had said it had feared identifying women concerned, because of the low numbers of cases.

The data shows there were 147 late abortions carried out last year.

Identification fears

Abortion on "social" grounds is only legal in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.

But the 1967 Abortion Act makes it legal to abort a foetus right up to birth if there is a substantial risk of "serious" physical or mental abnormality.

Up until 2003 the Department of Health published statistics on these late abortions, even when only one or two cases were involved.

But the publication of the figures in 2002 sparked an outcry when it became clear that one termination was carried out on a baby with a cleft lip and palate.

Critics argued that a relatively simple surgical procedure could now repair cleft palates, and anti-abortion groups argued the rules were being flouted to weed out "less than perfect" babies.

A police investigation was launched after a complaint by the Reverend Joanna Jepson, who was born with a jaw deformity.

By 2004, using information now in the public domain, journalists discovered the identity of one of the doctors involved in the abortion.

That led to fears that the identity of the patient could also be revealed.

The Department of Health had already decided in 2003 it would no longer reveal detailed information on late abortions where the number of terminations involving certain medical conditions was less than 10.

The decision affected England and Wales, but it is also the practice in Scotland; the Abortion Act does not apply in Northern Ireland.

In 2005 the ProLife Alliance, which opposes abortion, used the Freedom of Information Act to request the full statistics on abortions for 2003.

When the Department of Health refused, the Information Commissioner backed the PLA request, as did the Information Tribunal.

Eventually the case led to the High Court where the Department of Health had been trying to get the Information Tribunal decision overturned.

After the latest hearing went against it in April, the department decided not to take the case any further.

Club foot

Sixty-six of the late abortions carried out in 2010 were linked to problems in the nervous system, such as spina bifida.

No late abortions were carried out for cleft lip and palate.

However seven were carried out before 24 weeks for this reason.

The statistics released by the department also show eight terminations related to musculoskeletal problems, which could include club foot.

A total of 29 abortions were for chromosomal problems, including 10 for Down's syndrome and 10 for Edwards' syndrome.

The department has also released data on abortions for girls under 16.

There were 3,718 abortions in under-16s, including two for girls aged 12 in 2010.

The figures also reveal that an 11-year-old had an abortion in 2008. This was also the case in 2005 and 2002.

Julia Millington of the ProLife Alliance said: "This is a great victory for transparency and freedom of speech and we are delighted that full information about the justification for late abortions is now being made available in the same detail as it was in 2001."

But Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service which provides abortions, said: "The publication of these statistics after a campaign by the anti-abortion lobby reveals little more than their own vindictiveness."

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