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Court Rejects Use of European Human Rights Law to Establish Fetal Rights

In a case that could have undermined abortion rights across Europe, today the European Court of Human Rights refused to treat a fetus as a person under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Court upheld a 1999 decision by France's highest court in the case of Vo v. France. The Center for Reproductive Rights filed an amicus brief with the Court, arguing that granting a fetus the right to life would allow legal claims that favor the rights of a fetus over those of a pregnant woman.

In 1991, a French doctor negligently ruptured the amniotic sac of Thi-Nho Vo, a 36-year-old woman who was five months pregnant. The doctor had mistaken her with another patient seeking the removal of a contraceptive coil. His negligence forced an emergency abortion and Vo's loss of her fetus.

The French Court of Cassation ruled that the doctor could not be charged with unintentional homicide because the unborn fetus was not considered a person entitled to protection under France's criminal code. Vo then took the case to the European Court, arguing that the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees all persons the right to life, and that this guarantee applies to fetuses.

The European Court refused to extend the right to life to unborn fetuses. It reasoned, "firstly, that the issue of such protection has not been resolved within the majority of the Contracting States themselves...and, secondly, that there is no European consensus on the scientific and legal definition of the beginning of life." The Court further noted that "the life of the foetus was intimately connected with that of the mother and could be protected through her."

"Had the Court gone the other way, abortion laws in thirty-nine countries across Europe would have been rendered invalid. The facts in this case were extremely sad, but a woman's right to make her own decisions about her life and body were at stake," said Laura Katzive, Center for Reproductive Rights Legal Adviser. "This is an important decision for European women, and for women around the world whose governments are watching this influential Court."

In its amicus brief, the Center argued that a decision affirming Vo's claim could lead to the regulation and monitoring of women's activities during pregnancy in order to protect the presumed interests of fetuses. The Center emphasized that the loss of a wanted pregnancy is an injury to the pregnant woman and accordingly, the Court could recognize a violation of her rights, rather than those of the fetus. Read the Center's amicus brief (PDF)