Police investigate abortion of foetus with 'cleft palate'

The late abortion of a baby that was diagnosed in the womb with a cleft lip and palate is to be investigated again by police after the intervention of a female curate.

The Rev Joanna Jepson, who was born with a congenital jaw defect, is seeking a judicial review to challenge the refusal of police to bring charges against the doctors who performed the termination more than two years ago.

The abortion was carried out when the mother, known to be from Herefordshire, was more than 24 weeks pregnant - the legal limit for abortions unless there is a risk of serious disability. It is alleged the mother, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had a termination because she did not want a child with a cleft lip and palate

Lawyers for Ms Jepson, 27, who does not know the mother, argued at the High Court in London last year that the procedure could not be justified under the 1967 Abortion Act on the basis that the condition was not a "serious handicap", as required under the law. West Mercia Constabulary had decided not to seek prosecution after reportedly taking advice from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

But yesterday a West Mercia Constabulary spokesman said that acting Detective Chief Superintendent Ray Groves had been appointed to head the new inquiry, which is expected to be completed by the summer. "Following a review of material submitted to a judicial review of the case and legal advice, the force has appointed a new team of officers to carry out further inquiries," the spokesman said.

In a statement, Mr Groves said: "I have been appointed to conduct an investigation into all matters relating to the termination of a pregnancy by doctors in December 2001. We will approach his investigation with an open mind and interview all people associated with this case.

"Our renewed investigation into this sensitive matter will be carried out with due regard to all the parties involved and in the interests of openness and public confidence in the criminal justice system."

Ms Jepson, the curate of St Michael's Church in Chester, described in December how she and her brother, who suffers from Down's syndrome, were living positive and fulfilling lives. Ms Jepson underwent surgery to correct the jaw deformity with which she was born. "The baby in this case did not have this opportunity, despite the availability of excellent and routine medical help," she said.

Ms Jepson began the challenge after learning about the case while undergoing ordination training at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, in 2002. The initial case was turned down at the High Court in London in September last year but the decision was overturned two months later.

She said she now intended to press ahead with the judicial review in order to clarify current abortion law. She said: "It's extremely encouraging to hear that West Mercia Police have decided to re-investigate. Their action affirms the value of this baby's life as well as the wider public and legal importance for this issue to be addressed.

"At the moment my legal team believe it's necessary to pursue the judicial review. It will be in the interest of the police investigation for the law to be made clear.

"We hope that the case will bring about this necessary clarification and in doing so will defend and safeguard the rights of vulnerable lives."

The next hearing in the judicial review is expected to take place at the High Court in London from 24 to 26 May.