The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the involuntary abortion of a fetus does not constitute manslaughter, setting a precedent on the legal status of unborn babies that will be applied across Europe.
Abortion opponents see things differently
The court on Thursday said fetuses could not be legally considered human beings with a corresponding right to life by rejecting a Frenchwoman's claim a hospital committed involuntary homicide in carrying out an abortion six months into her pregnancy following a medical error.
A contrary judgement could have opened the door to abortions becoming illegal in Europe.
The ruling, however, stopped short of determining whether a fetus was a person or not, saying such a distinction was impossible to make.
"The court is convinced that it is neither desirable, nor even possible as matters stand, to answer in the abstract the question whether the unborn child is a person for the purposes of Article 2"of the European convention on human rights, it said.
The case involved Thi-Nho Vo, a 36-year-old of Vietnamese origin, who lost her baby in 1991 after a patient mix-up in which hospital staff in the city of Lyon confused her with another woman who was to have an intrauterine contraceptive device removed.
The erroneous surgery led to the rupture of the water sac protecting the female fetus, forcing the doctor to order an emergency abortion.
After taking the hospital to court on manslaughter charges and losing in France, Thi-Nho's lawyer lodged the case at the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the fetus was entitled to protection under the European convention article upholding a right to life.
But in its ruling, decided by 14 judges to three, the court decided that such protection could not be extended to fetuses. German judge Georg Ress dissented from the majority opinion.
It added that it believed the matter would have been better addressed in a civil lawsuit rather than a criminal one, had Thi-Nho started such a case before a four-year statute of limitations that existed at the time.
While calling the case a "tragedy," abortion rights groups welcomed the court's decision.
"This court ruling represents a victory for women’s rights and for everyone who provides medical services related to unwanted pregnancy," said Vicky Claeys, the Regional Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s European Network (IPPF EN). "Opposition to reproductive rights is on the rise in Europe, so today’s decision is a firm reinforcement of a woman’s legal right to choose."
But abortion opponents criticized the court's decision not to clarify whether a fetus was a person or not. "The judges decided not to decide anything," said Claudia Kaminski, who chairs the "Federal Association Right to Life," an umbrella organization of anti-abortion groups. She added that she believed that this was meant to keep the door open for future research on embryos.