Sunday, 18 October 2009

Telegraph Pens Opinion Piece on Abortion

Courtesy of The Telegraph

'It is extraordinary that it should have taken a judgment by the Information Tribunal last week to force the Department of Health (DoH) to release the statistics it holds on late abortions. It is also disgraceful. These abortions are alleged sometimes to be performed on what are euphemistically termed "social grounds": not because the mother or the foetus faces a serious risk to health, but because the mother has been advised that the foetus may be born with a feature – such as a cleft palate or a club foot – that she does not wish her child to have.

The information now to be released comprises statistics which are essential for the assessment of whether late abortion is or is not being used in order to ensure that "designer babies" are born. Many people oppose all abortions on principle; many more feel that terminating pregnancies for essentially cosmetic reasons is profoundly wrong, and should not be allowed. It is certainly arguable that the legal grounds for performing abortions after 24 weeks in order to avoid the birth of less-than-perfect babies are extremely dubious under the 1967 Abortion Act. That Act licenses terminations up until birth if there is a substantial risk that the baby will be born with a "serious" physical or mental abnormality. But it is not easy to see how anyone can maintain that a club foot or a cleft palate, however distressing it may be, counts as a "serious" abnormality under the Act.

Rather than have an open debate over the merits of the practice of "cosmetic" late abortions, the department evidently decided that the easiest way to ensure that its own view prevailed was simply to withhold details of the number of such terminations taking place. It was an extremely cynical move: the Government clearly approves of the controversial late abortions, but rather than justify its stance, it made debate impossible by depriving the public of information which is critical to it.

The grounds which the DoH has provided for its decision are so clearly spurious that it is astonishing that they should have been put forward, never mind been used to block the publication of the relevant data for six years. The department's lawyers have claimed that releasing the statistics might cause "mental distress or harm" to vulnerable women. Even if that were true, it would not necessarily be a reason for keeping the data secret: material from inquests, and from ordinary criminal trials, can certainly be distressing to some people, particularly relatives of the victim, but no one thinks that is a reason for stopping inquests or trials from being held in public.

But it is blatantly false that the release of the late abortion data need cause mental harm and distress to anyone. It should be fully anonymised, so as not to reveal the personal details of anyone involved, whether it be the doctors or the mothers. Up until 2002, when opponents of late abortion began to campaign against the practice, the statistics were published. No one was harmed. The DoH's use of the bogus claim that the data could cause harm illustrates that the basis of their case is not protecting privacy or safety, but their desire to keep the issue out of public discussion.

The ProLife Alliance and its barrister Paul Diamond are to be congratulated on taking the matter to the Information Tribunal, and winning. We hope now, finally, that there will be an open debate on the merits of late abortions – and we deeply deplore the Government's dogged attempts to prevent one.'

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