The precise nature and scope of healthcare confidentiality has long been the subject of debate. While the obligation of confidentiality is integral to professional ethical codes and is also safeguarded under English law through the equitable remedy of breach of confidence, underpinned by the right to privacy enshrined in Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998, it has never been regarded as absolute. But when can and should personal information be made available for statistical and research purposes and what if the information in question is highly sensitive information, such as that relating to the termination of pregnancy after 24 weeks? This article explores the case of In the Matter of an Appeal to the Information Tribunal under section 57 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, concerning the decision of the Department of Health to withhold some statistical data from the publication of its annual abortion statistics. The specific data being withheld concerned the termination for serious fetal handicap under section 1(1)d of the Abortion Act 1967. The paper explores the implications of this case, which relate both to the nature and scope of personal privacy. It suggests that lessons can be drawn from this case about public interest and use of statistical information and also about general policy issues concerning the legal regulation of confidentiality and privacy in the future.
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Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.