1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Court Warns Doctors: What You Don't Know Might Cost You

June 24, 2002

A ruling last week by Germany's highest court fining a doctor for failing to detect severe birth defects in a fetus triggers a serious ethics debate. The mother says she would have had an abortion if she knew.

Sebastian, who is five now, will never be able to run with the other kidsImage: AP

Germany's Federal Supreme Court is getting publicity it would rather do without right now. One of its rulings has spurred a heated ethical debate in Germany – and hardly anyone is siding with the judges.

The court ruled last week that a doctor has to pay financial support for a child that was born with severe physical disabilities. The doctor had examined the child's mother eleven times during her pregnancy, but failed to detect the handicap. The doctor had misinterpreted an ultra-sound image taken in the 20th week of the pregnancy, in which the disability could already have been seen.

The parents sued the doctor because they said they would have aborted the child if they had known their son Sebastian would be born with deformed arms and legs. Sebastian's mother claimed that having a handicapped child made her depressive and even suicidal.

Under German law, an abortion is legal if the pregnancy endangers the mother's health. This not only refers to health problems during the pregnancy but also afterwards. In this case, the court judged that the mother's depressive tendencies would have justified an abortion.

Wider implications

The verdict has wider implications for other parents of handicapped children in Germany. If they can prove that doctors overlooked the disability during pre-natal examinations, they can now also claim financial support.

All they have to do is say that they would have aborted the fetus, had they known that their child would be handicapped.

Handicapped organizations shocked by verdict

The Supreme Court ruling was met with sharp criticism from disabled organizations, politicians and the Christian churches in Germany. Netzwerk Artikel 3, a network of some 70 German organizations fighting for human rights and equality for disabled people, called the court ruling the "bursting of a dam."


spokesman Ottmar Miles-Paul said the self-help organizations were outraged that Germany's highest court considered a child born with multiple physical handicaps an unreasonable imposition to its parents.

"Pre-natal selection is reality"

The head of the German Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, said the ruling went against Christian values. The cardinal criticized German laws that he said make it possible to "sort out" disabled human beings and put "the decision about life or death of the unborn child" into the fickle hands of parents.

Cologne's cardinal, Joachim Meisner, said the Karlsruhe-based court was no longer a good guardian of the country's constitution. He said the judges at Germany's highest court weren't using the law to protect the weakest members of society.

"Sending the wrong signals"

Politicians from all of Germany's main political parties also expressed dissatisfaction with the verdict. Hermann Kues, a member of the conservative Christian Democrats, said the verdict was sending the wrong signals.

Ilja Seifert, a member of Germany's post-communist Party of Democratic Socialism said the court ruling could contribute to the stigmatization of handicapped people.

Jörg-Dietrich Hoppe, the president of Germany's Federal Physicians Board criticized the verdict, saying it represented a stark contrast to the values of a humane society and violated the doctors' code of ethics.

Parents say "A victory for justice"

The parents of the disabled child seem to be almost the only ones who are satisfied with the verdict. Sebastian's father said he was "totally happy." He and his wife called the court ruling a "victory for justice."

For them, a five year odyssey through German courts has finally come to an end. They began their legal quest for compensation immediately after their son's birth. Sebastian is now five years old and about to enter school.

Sebastian's parents told Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that they had been forced to sue for compensation and damages so they could pay for their handicapped son's special care.

Sebastian needs custom-made gadgets that cater to his disability: a specially made bicycle, for instance, to give him more freedom of movement, and a computer that he can operate with his crippled arms. But since Sebastian's mother had to give up her job to take care of her son and Sebastian's father is a blue-collar worker, they wouldn't have been able to afford any of these things otherwise.

"We've achieved what we wanted for Sebastian," his father said. "He's still going to face enough problems in life as it is."

Skip next section Explore more