Prosecutors defend decision not pursue doctors over sex selection abortions

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 06 September 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5465
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

England’s health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has asked the attorney general for “urgent clarification” of a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) not to prosecute two doctors for agreeing to perform abortions on the grounds that the unborn child was the “wrong” sex.

The CPS said that, although there was sufficient evidence to prosecute for an attempt to commit an offence under the Abortion Act 1967, prosecutors had decided that it would not be in the public interest to go ahead with a prosecution.

Jenny Hopkins, deputy chief prosecutor for CPS London, said in a statement that “one highly relevant factor” was that the General Medical Council was already involved in the case and had the power to remove doctors from the medical register.

She added, “Taking into account the need for professional judgment which deals firmly with wrongdoing, while not deterring other doctors from carrying out legitimate and medically justified abortions, we have concluded that the cases would be better dealt with by the GMC rather than by prosecution.

“In coming to this conclusion, we have also taken into account that in these cases no abortion took place or would have taken place.”

The doctors, Prabha Sivaranan and Raj Mohan, who practised at clinics in Manchester and Birmingham, respectively, were caught up in a newspaper “sting.” Undercover reporters from the Daily Telegraph accompanied pregnant women to nine clinics in different parts of the country. The women claimed they were seeking abortions because of the fetus’s sex, which is unlawful under the Abortion Act.

The GMC has imposed conditions on Sivaranam and Mohan, including banning them from abortion work, pending a full investigation of their cases. The CPS said that it had previously decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute four other doctors.

The attorney general superintends the CPS but does not interfere with decisions on whether to prosecute. Ken MacDonald, a former director of public prosecutions and now a Liberal Democrat peer, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he was surprised by the decision and thought that the attorney general, Dominic Grieve, might ask the current director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, to revisit it.

He said that cases of abortion on the grounds of sex selection were very difficult to detect, and where that was the case there were normally “strong grounds” for prosecuting. He considered it “a very dubious proposition” that doctors should escape prosecution because they were subject to professional regulation.

A decision not to prosecute can be challenged in the High Court, but the challenger would have to convince the court that the decision was unlawful or irrational. Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre, told the Telegraph, “We shall be seeking counsel’s opinion and are considering a judicial review of this decision.”

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the General Medical Council, said, “We have asked the CPS to send us the evidence they have gathered in these cases. We had put these cases on hold pending the outcome of the criminal investigation—these will resume now that the CPS has decided to take no further action.

“These are serious allegations, which is why both of the doctors concerned have had restrictions placed on their practice while investigations take place. It would not be appropriate to comment on individual cases where nothing has been proved and the investigations are ongoing.

“Our role, as laid down by parliament, is not to punish doctors but to protect the public, and so any action we may take against a doctor should not be seen as a substitute for action by other authorities.”

After Hunt’s intervention, Starmer said that he had decided that it would be sensible to explain the case specific reasons for not prosecuting in much greater detail. “Clearly this will involve careful consideration of how much information can be put into the public domain by way of explanation, but my intention is for a fuller explanation to be made by the CPS in due course,” he said.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5465

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