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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 December, 2003, 11:24 GMT
Q&A: Abortion case
A French woman is asking the European Court to recognise a foetus' right to life.

BBC News Online looks at the potential implications of its judgement.

Why is the case being brought?

In 1991 Mrs Thi-Nho Vo had her healthy pregnancy terminated by mistake after she was mixed up with another patient.

Since then, she has been unsuccessfully attempting to prosecute the doctor who carried out the procedure for unintentional homicide, the French equivalent of involuntary manslaughter.

Mrs Vo has failed because the courts do not recognise the foetus' right to life.

Her lawyer, Bruno Le Griel, argues that the unborn child is protected by article 2 of the European convention on human rights, which guarantees the right to life.

He said: "I will be asking the court to recognise reality. That is to say that human life begins at the moment of conception."

What will happen in court?

The case is in its first stage, an admissibility hearing, where the court will decide if it should go ahead and hear full arguments.

Although this case is individual, the court has been asked to consider other cases where husbands have challenged their wives' right to have an abortion without their consent, and one case where a German woman argued the country's abortion laws were too stringent.

On each occasion, the European Court shied away from taking a decision because each member state has very different abortion laws.

It is possible they may again leave the decision to national courts.

What affect will the court's ruling have on women's entitlement to abortions in the UK?

The court rules on individual cases, and its rulings are binding only on the respondent states - which in this case would be France.

So why is there concern about the case?

The Family Planning Association is concerned that if the court does rule that the foetus has a right to life, it could lead to legal challenges against UK abortion laws and - if the ruling applied from the moment of conception - even affect contraceptive rights.

So how likely is this scenario to happen?

Some legal experts have said they believe it is extremely unlikely.

Barbara Hewson, a barrister who specialises in human rights and abortion law, told the BBC: "The European Court is likely to be very guarded in what it says.

"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 said French law had already been changed so a charge could be brought against medical staff in any future cases like Mrs Vo's, but a charge of foetal homicide had not been introduced.

"The court is likely to say the wording of article 2 doesn't seem to expressly apply to foetuses because it goes on to say that no one's life should be taken away.

"That does seem to apply to people who have already been born rather than to unborn foetuses.

"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.

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