Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

Patient privacy threatened by abortion data ruling

The Department of Health has lost a long running battle to prevent the publication of certain statistics on later abortion. The High Court ruled last week (20.04.11) that the Department must fully disclose data on abortions carried out on the grounds of foetal abnormality, despite fears that the move could jeopardise the confidentiality of both patients and doctors involved.

Prior to 2003, the Department of Health published all data on abortion for foetal abnormality, including details of the specific conditions for which the procedure was undertaken. 

This policy was changed in order to prevent the disclosure of patient and doctor identities by anti-abortion groups or the media, following the Joanna Jepson case, which saw the legality of a later abortion carried out for cleft palate challenged, and the identity of the doctor involved enter the public domain following a police investigation.

In most cases, abortion in England, Scotland and Wales is legal until 24 weeks of pregnancy, except where there is a substantial risk of serious physical or mental abnormality when the procedure is legal throughout pregnancy. In 2009, only 138 abortions were carried out after 24 weeks on these grounds, with data on categories involving less than 10 cases suppressed.

Anti-abortion group Pro-Life Alliance has been pursuing the Department of Health under the Freedom of Information Act to specify each medical condition for which the procedure occurred, even when there are as few as one or two in each category, leaving open the possibility of the individuals involved being identified. The High Court has now ruled that all information must be published even in these categories. 

It is hoped that the Department of Health will continue to fight the decision in order to protect families facing the distressing decision to abort on these grounds.

Abortion Rights Vice-Chair Kate Smurthwaite has responded to the decision on The Guardian’s Comment is Free blog, pointing out that that the ruling will needlessly expose patients to public scrutiny:

“Vulnerable bereaved parents and their clinicians are being put at risk of being doorstepped by tabloid journalists, or forced into lengthy and expensive legal battles.”

Jane Fisher, Director of Antenatal Results and Choices, the charity dedicated to supporting parents throughout the antenatal and screening process commented:

“We speak daily to women and their partners dealing with the shock and grief of the diagnosis and agonising over whether to continue or end a wanted pregnancy.

These situations are rare, but extremely distressing. Women are ending their pregnancy at a stage when they have often prepared practically and emotionally for the birth of their baby. They enter this decision knowing it is life-changing and need to feel entirely confident that their privacy and confidentiality is protected. In our experience clinicians take their legal responsibility very seriously in what are challenging circumstances for them too. They need to be able to provide sensitive care to parents without fear of retribution on a personal level from anti-abortionists.

All involved in late terminations deserve our compassion, trust and support rather than the misguided suspicion that they are engaged in some nefarious ‘pursuit of perfection’.”

In our press response to the ruling Abortion Rights commented:

“Protecting the confidentiality of women who have taken the difficult decision to have an abortion on the grounds of foetal abnormality is of the utmost importance here. Following this ruling there is a real risk that their names will end up in the public domain.

In pushing for the disclosure of this information ‘pro-life’ groups demonstrate their total disregard for the privacy and well-being of the women whose rights they claim to champion.

The judgement further stigmatises women receiving a legal medical procedure, the details of which should remain a private matter between doctor and patient.”