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Fiona Beveridge: The Government's so-called "transparency" on freedom of information does not extend to abortion statistics

Fiona Beveridge Fiona Beveridge is a healthcare communications professional and a Conservative activist.

People across the country will have been furious to see Gordon Brown's interview on Sunday's Andrew Marr show, in which he boasted that it was a Labour Government that had brought in the Freedom of Information Act, even while he continues to dither and it looks likely that disgraced MPs will continue to receive thousands of pounds in pensions, benefits and pay.

However, one comment from Gordon Brown made me particularly angry, which may have passed other viewers by. He said:

"We need an open, transparent democracy where all these things are above board. And if I may say so, it doesn't just affect the House of Commons... it may affect all public institutions that receive taxpayers' money... This whole issue of transparency... will have to affect public institutions, including the Health Service... In a free society, open information and open society is the key to a proper democracy being accountable. I've always supported that."

Why is this particularly hypocritical? Because, as of last Friday, the Government is fighting a Freedom of Information case to allow the Department of Health to keep information on abortion statistics hidden from the public, as reported here.

Like the battle for freedom of information on MP's expenses, there has been a long running battle by the ProLife Alliance for full disclosure of abortion statistics in relationship to terminations carried out for disability, including babies aborted after 24 weeks and up to birth.

The Department of Health is clearly running scared of legal challenges following horrifying stories of babies being aborted for having club foot,  as well as news that babies are born alive at 18 weeks.

In 2003, when Joanna Jepson challenged the abortion of a 28 week old baby diagnosed with a cleft palate, many journalists and public figures expressed their opposition to late term abortions. The Cleft Lip and Palate Association said at the time that it was "surprised and concerned that a cleft lip was considered a major disability" and that the operation to correct a cleft lip is "routine".

The Department of Health has since then made it 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.

Such abortions are highly controversial, and more and more people are opposed to them. The importance of the ProLife Alliance's Freedom of Information case is underlined by the presence of the Ann Widdecombe MP as a witness on behalf of the ProLife Alliance.  

Two doctors not opposed to abortion per se are also giving evidence for the ProLife Alliance. Dr Vincent Argent is a former medical director of one of the largest UK abortion services, and Professor Stuart Campbell is a pioneer of 4-D ultrasound imaging which shows the humanity of the child at early stages of pregnancy. Both argue in favour of transparency and medical accountability.

The Department of Health's suppression of detailed statistics about abortion should anger the public as much as the MPs' expense claims. It is clearly in the public interest for this information to be publicly available. It should always be remembered that abortion is not a legal right under UK law.  It is only permitted under the 1967 Act if it can be shown to fulfil the various exemption clauses of the Act.

Absolute transparency is needed to ensure that these exemption clauses are being correctly interpreted and that no criminal acts are occurring. With unborn babies’ lives at risk, we need full and detailed information.


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