Posted on June 3rd, 2009 No comments
The Department of Health (DoH) has gone to an Information Tribunal in a bid to overturn a decision by the Information Commissioner ordering it to release statistics about late abortions.
Anti-abortion group ProLife Alliance had made the initial request to the DoH which had been refused under S.40 (Personal Information) and S.44 (Prohibition on Disclosure). ProLife Alliance appealed the decision and after 11 months the DoH upheld its original verdict to withhold the information.
The Information Commissioner ruled (link) the data could be given out and that there was no proof that just because the numbers were low it led to the identification of a person.
Government officials at the DoH have appealed the ruling and a Information Tribunal has been taking place in London this week, with the verdict expected later in the summer.
The rarity of late terminations for rare medical 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.
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.”
Abortion statistics where fewer than ten cases related to a particular condition have not been published since 2002.
DoH 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 four-day hearing was originally going to be held in private at the request of the Government but an agreement was reached with the Information Commissioner’s Office to hold part of the hearing 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’.