Cleft Palate Abortion Case Allowed To Go Ahead

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

London ( - A Church of England official won a ruling in front of Britain's High Court on Monday that will allow her to challenge a police decision not to prosecute doctors who carried out a late-term abortion because the child had a cleft palate.

The Rev. Joanna Jepson, speaking outside the court after the ruling, said she was "very thankful" that the case would be allowed to go to trial.

"The inaction of the police sadly betrays the true value of this baby's life," Jepson said. "I hope we shall succeed at trial and recognise once again the value and dignity of our common humanity, disabled or able-bodied, no matter what we look like."

Jepson, who herself suffered from a facial abnormality that was corrected by surgery, initially reported the case to police in 2001.

She argued that the procedure could not have been justified under current British law, which bans abortions past the 24th week of pregnancy except when there is a risk of serious disability.

West Mercia police, based in western England, refused to prosecute the doctors involved.

British law does not specifically describe what is considered a severe disability. A cleft palate, which occurs when the structures making up the lips and face fail to fuse correctly, can result in pain and feeding difficulties. It can be surgically corrected, but depending on the severity of the condition, treatments can last for decades.

Jepson's case against West Mercia Chief Constable Paul West will be heard in court at a date yet to be determined.

In a statement Monday, West said that during the original case police "sought the best possible medical and legal advice and acted in accordance with that advice."

The mother involved in the case and the exact date of the abortion can not be specified for legal reasons.

Pro-choice groups called the case "bizarre" while pro-life groups said it could have wide-ranging effects on British abortion law.

Ann Furedi of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service told the BBC that cleft palate can in some cases be life-threatening.

"In this case we just don't know - we have to trust the doctors involved," Furedi said.

"I think it is absolutely bizarre that the reverend feels, knowing absolutely nothing about individual circumstances of this woman, that she can go on to take legal action around it," Furedi said.

Josephine Quintavalle of Comment on Reproductive Ethics said the case could eventually lead to a ban on all abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy.

"This is hugely significant in terms of abortion politics," Quintavalle said. "In this case, it's focusing on the baby, not concentrating on the woman.

The courts could be asked to rule on what constitutes a severe disability, Quintavalle said, which could lead to further protests by disability-rights and pro-life groups.

"It could establish an unpleasant concept of what a serious handicap is and what it isn't," Quintavalle said.

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