Doctors and health officials will consider whether more guidance on abortions is needed following the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute two doctors who authorised a late abortion on a foetus with a cleft lip and palate.
Jim England, the chief crown prosecutor for West Mercia, said the doctors believed, in good faith, that there was a substantial risk the child would be seriously handicapped. "In these circumstances, I decided that there was insufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction and that there should be no charges against either of the doctors," he said.
The inquiry began after a legal challenge over a previous decision by police not to charge the doctors involved in the abortion carried out, in 2001, on an unnamed woman from Herefordshire who was more than 24 weeks pregnant.
Joanna Jepson, 28, now at St Michael's Church, Chester, but then a trainee vicar, found out about the procedure in 2002 when studying abortion statistics and suggested that it amounted to unlawful killing.
Yesterday Ms Jepson said: "While I'm disappointed about the CPS's decision to drop the case, I am pleased the case has raised the issue of late-term abortion and the plight of disabled babies in late-term pregnancy. It has exposed grave discrimination and I will be seeking legal advice."
She said she might try to get clarification from the courts about whether unborn children in the third trimester have got human rights and what constituted "serious handicap".
She might consider whether to re-open a judicial review of the first decision not to prosecute. This was stayed after police decided to conduct a second inquiry into the case, admitting the initial decision was not based on a full investigation.
Ms Jepson was born with a congenital jaw defect, uncorrected until her teens, and her brother has Down's syndrome. Her lawyers had argued that a cleft palate could not be considered as a severe disability.
The prosecutor's decision coincides with heated debate over whether the 24-week limit on terminating pregnancy should be reduced. The 1967 Abortion Act allows for later termination if two doctors decide a child would be seriously handicapped.
The Department of Health would not comment on the case but the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology said it knew the doctors "were acting in good faith and within the current legislation," adding: "We now need to consider whether further guidance is needed."
Ann Furedi, chief executive of the abortion care organisation Bpas, said: "This is very good news. We were very concerned at the prosecution because this situation arose because somebody who had nothing to do with the particular case took this case to court claiming an offence had been committed."
She added: "Rather than leap into court or the papers, we need to take stock of the circumstance in which women and doctors make decisions around abortion."
The Cleft Lip and Palate Association accepted the CPS verdict.
"Our concern was that if it was beyond all doubt that all it was a cleft lip and palate, then we could not understand why a decision to terminate had been taken," said the chief executive, Gareth Davies.
Hereford County Hospital's management, where the abortion was performed, reported "many expressions of support" for staff.