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Europe

Compensation for Being Born?

Can doctors be made liable for allowing the births of disabled children? This controversial question is dividing France. Lawmakers say no. But the final word hasn't been spoken.

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An ethical debate in France about abortion and disability

Lawmakers in France are grappling with an exceptional question: can handicapped people sue doctors or their parents on the grounds that they should not have been born?

The French National Assembly took a clear stand on this on Thursday. It introduced a bill which states: "Nobody can claim to have been harmed simply by being born."

The bill was endorsed by the French government. The French Senate will now have the final word on the issue.

Landmark court cases

What sounds like a bizarre question in the first place was triggered in the year 2000 by a landmark court case.

Nicolas Perruche, a mentally handicapped French teenager, won compensation from pre-natal doctors for being born. The reasoning was that the doctors had failed to alert his mother to his likely disabilities, denying her the choice of an abortion.

The court granted Perruche lifelong compensation payments for being born.

The controversial ruling was later confirmed by France's highest court.

In a second case in September of 2001, a French court in Bordeaux ruled that 10-year-old Alicia, a handicapped girl, and her family should be compensated. Alicia was born with physical and mental disabilities and has problems breathing.

Again, doctors had not warned her mother that the child she was carrying could be born disabled. The family argued that this denied her the choice to have an abortion.

Controversial debate

The court rulings has sparked a controversial ethical debate in France and in other European countries about abortion and disability.

Handicap support groups and the French National Ethics Committee criticized the rulings. They said they were demeaning to disabled people.

Pre-natal doctors argued that the rulings would open the door to a possible flood of compensation claims.

Earlier this month, ultrasound and pre-natal professionals went on strike in France. They said the rulings were making their job impossible. Ultrasound scanning for disability could never be 100 percent reliable, they argued.

Lawmakers intervene

French lawmakers took these arguments to heart and drafted a new law to counteract the courts' reasoning.

The bill states that children born with disabilities will no longer be able to sue doctors or their parents on the grounds that they should not have been born.

The bill passed a vote in the French National Assembly on Thursday. Only one member of parliament voted against it.

The French government hopes the upper house of parliament, the Senate, will now ratify the bill without any amendments.