Page last updated at 15:30 GMT, Friday, 29 May 2009 16:30 UK

Late abortion tribunal challenge

Pregnant woman in her third trimester
Late abortions can be carried out for medical reasons

An anti-abortion group is continuing its fight for the publication of details of late medical abortions.

An information tribunal is hearing a Department of Health appeal that such information should not be published.

It is legal to terminate a pregnancy up to birth if there is a serious risk of a physical or mental abnormality.

But ministers ruled precise details should not be published after a 2003 probe into an abortion of a foetus with a cleft palate.

Should abortion details be public?

A Church of England curate, Joanna Jepson, had challenged the legality of the abortion.

However, in 2005, the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to bring charges against the consultant involved.

The ProLife Alliance has argued for five years that information on the conditions involved should be published.

Last July, the Information Commissioner ruled in favour of the group.

But the Department of Health appealed, and so the case was referred to the Information Tribunal.

Confidentiality should remain the paramount concern
Marie Stopes International spokeswoman

The ProLife Alliance said in a statement: "It is now impossible to identify precisely how many abortions have been performed under a number of categories of disability, including cleft palate.

"An unspecified category recorded as 'other' is sometimes the only detail available."

'Striking a balance'

During the hearing Timothy Pitt-Payne, representing the Information Commissioner, said the commissioner was "not taking a position on the rights and wrongs of abortion".

But he said the argument that publishing the data could motivate someone to make further inquiries into the individuals behind it was not enough to prevent its publication.

Geoff Dessen, deputy director of health and wellbeing at the Department of Health, said the question of whether abortions was taking place for "trivial" reasons was a legitimate one.

But he said he was "uncomfortable" with the level of data being published in the immediate aftermath of the 2002 Jepson case, where the doctor involved was identified.

The Department of Health now does not publish abortion statistics where less than 10 cases related to a particular condition per year are involved.

Mr Dessen said: "We want to publish as much information as we can as fast as we can.

"However, we have to strike a balance with that and the individuals being identified."

And he said that in other countries identification had led to individuals being murdered.

"Just because it hasn't happened here yet doesn't mean it won't," he said. "We don't know the risks."

But under cross-examination by Paul Diamond, representing the ProLife Alliance, Mr Dessen strongly denied that he and the Department of Health had a political agenda to weaken the effectiveness of the Abotion Act.

And he said that if the department suspected an abortion had taken place without proper reasons it had a duty to refer the case to the police.

Identification concern

A spokeswoman for the charity Marie Stopes International, which defends a woman's right to opt for an abortion, said there were concerns over publishing more details of late abortions.

Should abortion details be public?

"It could potentially make some of the most vulnerable individuals - such as girls of 11 or 12 years of age, or women who have undergone a late gestation abortion on the grounds of foetal disability - liable to being publicly identified, which could have a hugely detrimental impact on their mental health."

Laura Riley of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service said: "All the statistics about abortion are already fully publicly available.

"It's just that in the published datasets, the Department of Health groups tiny numbers of abortions together by year because of concerns about maintaining women's privacy."

Witnesses appearing for the ProLife Alliance include MP Ann Widdecombe, while Professor Vivienne Nathanson of the British Medical Association is appearing for the Department of Health.

Abortion for social reasons remains legal up to the 24th week of pregnancy. Around 1% of abortions take place after the 20th week.

The hearing was adjourned until Monday and a decision is expected later in the summer.

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