Pages

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Ministers fight to keep late abortions secret

Late abortions of "less than perfect" foetuses are the subject of a secrecy row with the Government.

It centres on mothers who opt for termination because their unborn babies have been diagnosed with conditions such as club foot and cleft palate.

Doctors say such conditions can usually be corrected by surgery.

The Information Commissioner has ordered the release of the figures, but the Department of Health is resisting, claiming that disclosing the data could lead to women who have late abortions being identified.

While abortion is only legal in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy if carried out on social grounds, "Ground E" of the 1967 Abortion Act makes it legal to abort a foetus which has a serious risk of physical or mental abnormality, right up to birth. There are continuing concerns that the law is being flouted to weed out "less than perfect" babies.

Prof Stuart Campbell, the leading obstetrician whose 3D-scan images of babies "walking in the womb" at 12 weeks led to calls for a lowering of the 24-week limit for social abortion, said last night: "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. I am not saying that using abortion is doing wrong, but we need to see the data in order to understand what is happening." Health chiefs stopped publishing full abortion data three years ago after a public outcry over the termination of a foetus with a cleft palate at 28 weeks' gestation. The legality of this late abortion, carried out in 2001, was challenged by a Church of England curate, Joanna Jepson, who was born with a congenital jaw defect."