Fetus has no rights, European court rules

Thursday, Jul 8, 2004

Associated Press

Brussels — Europe's top human-rights court rejected an appeal Thursday to grant full human rights to a fetus, saying national governments must decide the issue themselves.

Meeting in Strasbourg, France, the European Court of Human Rights said it could not rule on a case filed by a French woman who was forced to have an abortion after a doctor's mistake.

Thi-Nho Vo had argued that France had violated the right to life of her unborn child. French courts refused to convict the doctor of involuntary homicide.

The 17-judge panel ruled that the issue of when the right to life begins is “a question to be decided at national level ... because the issue had not been decided within the majority of states” that have ratified the European Convention on human rights.

The court said that, at the European level, there is "no consensus on the nature and a status of the embryo and/or fetus.”

Ms. Vo took the case to the European court after France's highest court overturned the doctor's conviction on a charge of involuntary homicide, ruling that the fetus was not yet a human being entitled to the protection of criminal law.

In a 14-2 decision, the European Court concluded that “it was neither desirable, nor even possible ... to answer in the abstract the question whether the unborn child was a person.” The presiding judge did not cast a vote.

The court's sensitive approach reflected deep differences over abortion across the continent.

The decision was welcomed by a leading abortion-rights group that filed arguments warning that accepting a right to life for a fetus could make abortions illegal in all 45 countries that recognize the court's jurisdiction.

“This was obviously a tragic individual case, but we are pleased that the judges have ruled to reject the applicant's case,” said Anne Weyman, chief executive of the London-based Family Planning Association.

In a statement, she said the “decision will safeguard the laws on abortion which have been widely adopted in the European member states, and will serve to protect women's rights to life, health, self-determination and equality.”

According to court documents, Ms. Vo, 36, who lives in Bourg-en-Bresse, France, went to a hospital in Lyons on Nov. 21, 1991, for an exam when she was six months pregnant.

On the same day, another woman of Vietnamese origin with the same last name, Thanh Van Vo, was due to have a contraceptive device known as a coil removed from her uterus.

Ms. Vo did not speak French and her gynecologist mistook her for the Ms. Vo who was having the device removed. He pierced her amniotic sac, making a therapeutic abortion necessary.

Ms. Vo filed the case with the European court in December 1999.