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Comment may be Free at The Guardian newspaper but the right to reply is more difficult to negotiate!

Fiona Beveridge, a member of the ProLife Alliance, wrote to the Guardian asking for inaccuracies in the article written by Kate Smurthwaite in the Guardian on 22 April to be corrected, but has not received the courtesy of a response. We are therefore publishing Fiona’s response on our website in the interests of freedom of speech and accuracy. This response gives a clearer picture of the case itself and the objectives of the ProLife Alliance in bringing the Freedom of Information case in the first place.

Fiona Beveridge writes:

Kate Smurthwaite, a pro-choice comedian, wrote a ‘Comment is Free’ piece in the Guardian last weekend about the Information Tribunal’s ruling on the disclosure of abortion statistics. This was in reaction to the unsuccessful attempt by the Department of Health on the 20 April 2011 to overturn the earlier ruling in favour of the ProLife Alliance, who had originally requested this statistical information no less than six years ago in 2005. How arduous is the road to truth!

Ms Smurthwaite’s piece contains a number of factual inaccuracies, in addition to her brushing under the carpet major issues of democracy and human rights. She seems to be somewhat unaware of principal ProLife Alliance activities over the past decade, whilst attributing to us other prolife initiatives (foetal models circulated in Parliament, witnessing outside abortion clinics, operating help lines), none of which is actually the responsibility of the ProLife Alliance. We do not wish to take credit for the work of other prolife groups.

What the ProLife Alliance has done for more than a decade, however, is to defend robustly freedom of speech – a democratic freedom which normally elicits flag-waving enthusiasm from the Guardian newspaper (most recently Wikileaks comes to mind).

When fielding candidates at the General Election in 1997, some will remember that the ProLife Alliance fought a protracted legal battle against the BBC and its censorship of abortion images in our planned election broadcast. The accurate depiction of abortion, a procedure which takes place some 200,000 times a year in the United Kingdom, was censored on grounds of taste and decency. We argued successfully – at least in the Court of Appeal – that showing images of abortion was fundamental to our political message that abortion is unacceptable in a civilised society. The broadcasters, in imposing censorship, were in fact ironically illustrating our point: if something is too terrible to look at, should we be tolerating it?

Following our successful Court of Appeal ruling, the BBC appealed to the House of Lords, who sadly ruled in favour of the BBC’s censorship.

But back to the current case.

In subtitling her piece ‘the decision to publish individual figures on late terminations will needlessly expose vulnerable women to public scrutiny’ Ms Smurthwaite seems to imply that the aim of the ProLife Alliance’s battle for transparency over the abortion statistics is to identify individuals. This is an absurd accusation. It is neither the aim, nor even a likely consequence, as has been reiterated throughout the various court hearings. Individual identities can be totally protected at the same time as precise statistics about abortion (i.e. numbers, gestational age of the baby, and reasons for abortion) are made available for public scrutiny. How can a proper democratic debate be conducted in the absence of these basic facts?

The ProLife Alliance takes a compassionate, non-judgmental attitude to any woman facing a crisis pregnancy or the aftermath of abortion. We want women to have every possible support to help them continue with the pregnancy, and we want the best medical care and support for babies with disabilities and their families.

We do not believe it is in anyone’s interest for the reality of abortion to be hidden from public view. Women considering abortion have the right to information, including on the gestational age of the baby, the reality of the abortion procedure, and alternative support and help available. And society has an absolute duty to provide support for the weakest members of society – which includes providing support for anyone affected by disability or those caring for someone with a disability.

Most importantly, we have a duty to uphold the human rights of those with disability from the very beginning of human life. This means that the discriminatory practice of aborting a child on the grounds of disability – potentially legal even up to the moment of birth – should not be allowed to continue. It is not a coincidence that disability rights campaigners supported the legal inquiry taken forward by the Rev Joanna Jepson over the baby who was aborted post-24 weeks on the grounds that he/she had a cleft palate. Anyone who genuinely supports equality rights should join the ProLife Alliance and disability campaigners in opposing abortion for disability.

The political left in the United Kingdom is almost automatically associated with endorsement of human rights. What about the right to life of disabled people and the public right to freedom of information on the practice of abortion? These are the questions Ms Smurthwaite should be addressing in her Guardian article, rather than scaremongering about the ProLife Alliance.