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01 / 06 / 2009 - Statistics on cleft abortions must stay secret
Vulnerable women could be put at risk if details about late abortions are made public, the Department of Health claimed yesterday.
It was responding to criticism over its attempt to keep secret the number of late abortions performed for conditions such as club foot and cleft palate.
A legal challenge has been mounted by anti-abortion group The ProLife Alliance, which wants the publication of full data about late abortions.
The rarity of terminations for such conditions means release of data about them could cause 'mental distress or harm' should a woman realise she was the only one in the UK to have such a procedure, the Government told a London information tribunal.
It added that doctors could be at risk of being identified.
Geoff Dessen, deputy director of health and wellbeing at the Department of Health, said a balance had to be struck between openness with information and individuals being identified.
In extreme cases in other countries, identification had led to individuals being murdered, he said.
'Just because it hasn't happened here yet, doesn't mean it won't,' he added. 'We don't know the risks.'
It is legal to terminate a pregnancy up to birth if there is a serious risk of physical or mental abnormality.
But ministers decided details of the eligible conditions should not be published after a 2003 investigation into the abortion of a foetus with a cleft palate.
Church of England curate Joanna Jepson challenged the legality of that abortion, although the Crown Prosecution Service decided in 2005 not to bring charges against the consultant involved. Miss Jepson was herself born with a jaw deformity which she has had corrected by surgery.
Abortion statistics where fewer than ten cases related to a particular condition have not been published since 2002.
Last July, the Information Commissioner ruled in favour of the ProLife Alliance's attempt to reverse the secrecy ruling under Freedom of Information laws.
After the Department of Health appealed, the case was referred to the Information Tribunal, where government lawyer Christina Michalos said the data related to 'sensitive, personal and private' medical information involving women who had had a 'devastating experience'. Such disclosure could trigger 'mental distress or harm' in one-off cases, she said.
'This case is about the protection of privacy, it is not about politics,' she added. 'It's the right of any person to keep their personal medical information private.'
The Department of Health is following guidance from the Office for National Statistics, which does not recommend releasing data which applies to fewer than ten people.
Ministers originally called for the four-day hearing on the case to be held in private, but under an agreement-with the Information Commissioner's Office it is now being partly heard in public.
However, The ProLife Alliance was refused permission to call Tory MP Ann Widdecombe to give evidence in addition to a written statement she has already submitted.
Timothy Pitt-Payne, representing the Information Commissioner, admitted the tribunal was dealing with 'highly controversial subject matter'. However, he stressed that the commissioner was 'not taking a position on the rights or wrongs of abortion'.
A ruling will be made within four to six weeks.
Source: Daily Mail