Court ruling sets stage for abortion row in France

8th February 2008, Comments 0 comments

A ruling by France's supreme court on the right of parents to name a miscarried or stillborn foetus could stoke debate about the country's abortion laws

  PARIS, February 8, 2008  - A ruling by France's supreme court on the right
of parents to name a miscarried or stillborn foetus could stoke debate about
the country's abortion laws and embryo research, lawyers and activists said
   The Court of Cassation, France's highest judicial court, handed down the
decision late Wednesday.
   It said parents had the right to have a name officially registered for a
foetus that had been stillborn or miscarried, regardless of the foetal stage
of development.
   The court upheld a suit filed by three plaintiffs who had miscarriages
between the 18th and 22nd week of pregnancy, with foetuses weighing between
155 and 400 grammes (5.5 and 14 ounces), but had been barred from registering
a name with the authorities.
   Until now, French officials have insisted that only foetuses that have
developed beyond the 22nd week or weigh more than 550g (1.1 pounds), or have
been certified by a doctor as having briefly lived, have the right to have a
name registered.
   The finding had been sought for years by campaigners, who said that by
getting the legal right to name the foetus, grieving would-be parents could
come to terms with their loss.
   It also enables the mother of the foetus to claim maternity leave and
parents to recover the body to hold a funeral. Before foetus was incinerated
by the hospital along with waste tissues.
   The administrative circular used by French officials that is at the heart
of the controversy had been based on a 1977 World Health Organisation (WHO)
definition of a viable foetus.
   But the Court of Cassation said the circular had not been approved by
parliament, and officials had overstepped the mark. An earlier decision by the
Court of Appeal, in favour of the circular, was struck down.
   State attorney Alain Legoux said the decision left a troubling legal void
about the criteria for determining the survivability of a foetus, and this
raised potential conflicts about abortion and embryo research.
   He called on legislators to fill the void.
   His appeal was echoed by Jean-Paul Delevoye, who acts as a mediator between
the state and the public.
   The ruling could fuel a simmering row over pregnancy termination, pitching
feminists and supporters of abortion against the Catholic church and
anti-abortion groups, sources said.
   Chantal Birman, deputy president of a pro-abortion and contraception group
called ANCIC, said the court's determination would provide a powerful
emotional argument for opponents of abortion, as it implied that a foetus or
an embryo of any stage of development had the right to a name.
   "A foetus is only viable after 26 weeks," said Birman, a midwife by
training. "You have to take the timetable of pregnancy into account."
   The decision "will help a rollback (on abortion rights) that has been
taking place in Europe for the last few months," Birman told AFP, pointing to
changes in Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain.
   France has among the most liberal laws on pregnancy termination in the
world. Abortion is permitted up to 12 weeks after the start of pregnancy, and
can be carried out by a simple pill which induces miscarriage, rather than by
   Abortion was authorised in 1975 and is vigorously defended by French
feminists, who see it as a cornerstone of their rights. The 30th anniversary
of the passing of the law in January saw skirmishes in the media and rallies
by both sides.
   Delevoye, the ombudsman, urged parliament to pass a law on the right to
name a foetus that would give legal force to the administrative circular.
   But he cautioned that the change was more complex than it may seem, as the
new law would also touch on other pieces of legislation.
   One potential loophole, he said, was in retirement legislation. Women in
France can retire earlier if they have more children, so lawmakers had to
spell out clearly what this right entailed.


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