British Government Goes to Court to Defend Refusal to Explain Abortions Based on Disability

By Dave Andrusko

Seems like it was only yesterday but it was actually nearly seven years ago that I wrote a story for National Right to Life News which began, “Under pressure, police in Hertfordshire, England, are reluctantly opening a criminal investigation into the abortion of 28-week-old baby diagnosed with a bilateral cleft lip and palate, brought to light by Church of England curate Joanna Jepson.” The ugliness behind that story—eugenic abortions–has, in a sense, come full circle.

Rev. Joanna Jepson

What has taken place only makes sense if you understand that in England, under its 1967 Abortion Act, abortion on “social grounds” is legal through 24 weeks but (under “Ground E”) is legal to until birth if there is a substantial risk of “serious” physical or mental abnormality.

Every year, until 2002, the Department of Health had published a full breakdown of figures. But an immense controversy eventually broke out when those figures showed that the year before, a 28-week-old unborn baby with a cleft palate was aborted. This lead to Jepson to argue that a cleft palate did not meet the definition of being “seriously handicapped,” according to Stephen Adams. “She argued that the doctors had therefore carried out an unlawful killing, but the Crown Prosecution Service declined to prosecute, saying the doctors had acted in good faith.”

Her attempts to get legal satisfaction apparently met a dead end. Moreover, beginning in 2003 the Department of Health stopped publishing detailed information on “Ground E” abortions.

Starting from a challenge filed by the Pro-Life Alliance based on the Freedom of Information Act, 18 months ago the “Information Rights Tribunal ruled that the numbers of women who had late abortions because their unborn babies had such conditions should be published,” wrote Adams. But the government refused, arguing that the information was “sensitive, personal and private,” and was in court today defending that position.

I emailed the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) for their take on the case. John Smeaton, executive director, emailed back

“We are very concerned by any attempt at secrecy by the government regarding abortion. It is absolutely vital for the future protection of both unborn children and women that there is complete transparency in official statistics. Secrecy will only serve those doctors authorizing or performing abortions outside the terms of the law, which is already a widespread practice.

“The fact that the case relates to statistics on the severity of disabilities among aborted unborn children is not strictly relevant to the moral issue. All unborn children, whatever their physical or mental state, have an equal right to life, confirmed by international human rights law.

“So we should not be asking whether cleft palate is a more or less   severe disability, but why the government wants to cover up the facts about which babies it is aborting and why.

“The argument for transparency is all the stronger because nearly all abortions for disability are paid for by the taxpayer, and unlike most NHS procedures, they are not done to achieve any health benefit, but to cut the cost of caring for disabled people.”

The Telegraph newspaper ran a thoughtful editorial today, taking on the government’s major argument directly—that an abortionist would be identified.

“[W]hen a request was made under the Freedom of Information Act, an independent tribunal said it was satisfied that the likelihood of a doctor being identified from the statistics alone ‘is so remote that disclosure of the disputed information would not be unwarranted.’”

The editorial concluded:

“What is the Health Department trying to hide? Anonymised statistics do not constitute personal data and those organisations who seek to prevent their publication by pretending they do are helping no one in this debate. Public interest in the circumstances of late abortion is legitimate and full transparency is required. We would urge the High Court to end the Government’s obduracy on this matter as soon as possible.”

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