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Ethics briefings
  1. S Brannan,
  2. M Davies,
  3. V English,
  4. R Mussell,
  5. J Sheather,
  6. E Chrispin,
  7. A Sommerville
  1. Correspondence to Eleanor Chrispin, BMA House, Tavistock square, London WC1H 9JP, UK; echrispin{at}

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Abortion data

In October 2009, the Information Tribunal1 upheld a decision by the Information Commissioner2 to require the Department of Health (DH) to release more detailed data on abortions carried out where “there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped”.3 The DH is appealing the decision.

The background to the case spans several years. In 2004, when publicising data from 2003, the DH altered the way it presented the annual abortion statistics for England and Wales. The main drivers for change were the Joanna Jepson case4 and the Department of Health’s concern that data are at higher risk of being used to identify individuals “in light of the availability of the internet and advances in information spread”.5 Guidance from the Office for National Statistics notes that data sets of highly sensitive data, where there are fewer than 10 cases, are at risk of identifying individuals.6

As a result, the abortion data from 2003 only listed and provided data for specific groups of medical conditions for which the abortion was carried out, if there were 10 or more cases in total. For example, whereas in the 2002 abortion data, a single case categorised as ‘cleft lip and cleft pallet’ was included (as were nine other medical conditions with fewer than 10 cases)7; in 2003, data were grouped together, or a number was not given, where there were fewer than 10 cases.8

The ProLife Alliance (PLA) sought to obtain the previous level of detail for the 2003 abortion data. The PLA lodged a complaint …

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  • Provenance and Peer review Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

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