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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 December, 2003, 08:50 GMT
Abortion test case goes to Europe
pregnant woman
The case centres on the unborn baby's right to life
A woman whose pregnancy was wrongly terminated wants the European Court to accept a foetus' right to life.

The mix-up occurred in France, but campaigners fear the judgement could have implications for abortion rights across Europe.

French courts said the doctor could not be prosecuted for homicide as the foetus did not have the right to life.

But Mrs Thi-Nho Vo will argue that an "unborn child" has that right under the European Convention on Human Rights.

It is not the function of the court to tell individual countries what kind of detailed laws they should have on matters as controversial and sensitive as abortion
Barbara Hewson, barrister in human rights and abortion law

An admissibility hearing will be held in Strasbourg on Wednesday to decide if the full hearing can go ahead.

The UK's Family Planning Association has warned that if Mrs Vo were to win her case, Britain's abortion laws could be invalidated and even the legality of the morning after pill, which stops a fertilised egg implanting in the uterus, could be affected.

But some abortion law experts say the court is likely to shy away from telling individual countries what the detail of their abortion laws should be.


In 1991, Mrs Vo, a French national of Vietnamese origin, went to the Hotel-Dieu hospital in Lyons for an examination when she was six months pregnant.

On the same day, another woman, Thanh Van Vo, was due to have a coil removed at the same hospital.

The pregnant Mrs Vo, from Bourg-en-Bresse, could not speak French, and was unable to communicate with gynaecologist Francois Golfier.

He mistook her for the other Mrs Vo, and tried to remove a coil, piercing the amniotic sac and making it necessary for a therapeutic abortion to be carried out.

Who would dare tell my client to her face that what she was carrying was nothing more than a cluster of cells?
Bruno Le Griel, Mrs Vo's lawyer
Dr Golfier was charged with unintentional homicide, the French equivalent of involuntary homicide.

He was acquitted of the charge, but convicted on appeal and sentenced to six months in prison and fined 10,000 francs.

But Dr Golfier then appealed to the court of cassation - France's highest court - which overturned the ruling on the grounds that the foetus was not a human being and not entitled to the protection of criminal law.

Legal status

Mrs Vo will argue that the foetus is protected by article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees a right to life.

Her lawyer, Bruno Le Griel, told the BBC's Today programme: "I will be asking the court to recognise reality, that is to say the human life, a human being, begins at the moment of conception.

"Who would dare tell my client to her face that what she was carrying, what she lost as a result of a mistake in the hospital, was nothing more than a cluster of cells and was not a human child - her child?"

Anne Weyman, chief executive of the Family Planning Association, said the current law, under which a foetus is not considered to be a person with rights, but a child born alive is, was a satisfactory compromise.

She told BBC News Online: "The implications would be that all methods of contraception apart from barrier and natural family planning could be affected.

She said: "I would hope that the European Court would understand that the consequences of ruling in Mrs Vo's favour are such that they would not.

"What happened to her was terrible and extremely tragic because a healthy pregnancy was terminated, but the redress that she should have must be possible through other aspects of the law without having to change the legal status of the foetus."

Nuala Scarisbrick, of the Life, the pro life charity, said: "This is a landmark case.

"If the EU judges follow common sense and the evidence of their eyes they will say 'of course that baby was a real, living human being', and that will be a legal earthquake - here in the UK, across Europe and eventually across the world - which will destroy abortionism."


Barbara Hewson, a barrister who specialises in human rights and abortion law, told the BBC: "It is not the function of the court to tell individual countries what kind of detailed laws they should have on matters as controversial and sensitive as abortion."

She added: "I think the court may say it is possible for member states to show respect for foetal life without necessarily saying that the foetus is a person as such.

"But they are likely to give member states discretion about the way they go about this."

She said she believed the court would be very careful not to hand down a judgement which could lead to challenges of abortion laws in European member states.

UK law allows an abortion to be carried out after 24 weeks if the child has a disability which means it would be born severely handicapped.

The court's ruling on whether a full hearing can go ahead is expected within "several weeks".

The BBC's Karen Allen
"The doctor accidentally terminated the pregnancy"

Barbara Hewson, Barrister
"The French court felt very strongly that its homicide laws should not be used in this scenario"

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