Of those, 10 occurred after 28 weeks - abortions which would have been illegal under the old law, other than to save the life of the mother. Five occurred at 29 weeks, two at 30, one at 31, one at 33 and one at 36 weeks - three weeks short of full term.
The figures brought immediate calls for a fresh review of the law from anti-abortion groups. But a leading gynaecologist said yesterday that the very late abortions - those after 28 weeks - were simply recording for the first time terminations of non-viable foetuses that had always taken place. And Mr Sackville said an examination of the notification forms for the 52 late abortions carried out after the law changed showed that in all cases save one 'severe abnormalities' had been diagnosed. The other case had been to save the life of the mother.
The Abortion Law Reform Association said: 'These were clearly not abortions for frivolous reasons.' The department's figures show that 43 per cent of abortions beyond 24 weeks were for central nervous system abnormalities which include gross brain deformities and spina bifida, 22 per cent were genetic abnormalities, 17 per cent multiple system abnormalities, 11 per cent renal conditions and 7 per cent heart defects.
The 60 late abortions last year came in a total of 179,522 performed in England and Wales, a 4 per cent drop on 1990.
Chris Whitehouse, parliamentary officer for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said the society was 'deeply concerned at such a significant rise in late abortions' and MPs would be 'horrified' that one had been carried out at 36 weeks.
Pro-life MPs were assured when the law was changed that abortions would only take place after 24 weeks in the most extreme circumstances, he said.
However, David Paintin, the senior gynaecologist who is chairman of the Birth Control Trust, said the increase appeared to have two causes. One was 'telling the truth' about late terminations that had always happened under the old law but had not been classified as abortions. And the other was late abortions for severe handicap that the old law forbade.
Mr Paintin said there had always been cases, discovered post- 28 weeks, of such severe abnormality that the child would not survive after birth. Many of those involved gross brain abnormalities. The pregnancy would have been terminated, but such cases in the past would have been dubbed 'obstetric manoeuvres' and not registered under the abortion law. Under the new law they would be notified.
With 43 per cent of the late abortions due to central nervous system abnormalities, a significant number appeared to fall into that category, he said. The remainder, appeared to involve serious abnormalities diagnosed late or which only became apparent after 24 weeks - some serious heart defects and brain conditions were diagnosable only after 24 weeks. 'Under the old law, it wasn't legal to terminate these, but now women, their partners and doctors do have a freedom they did not have before'.
Dilys Cossey, director of the Birth Control Trust, said the late abortions were plainly ones of much wanted children.
'No woman would wish to go through an abortion this late unless there were the strongest reasons,' she added.