British doctors could be barred from performing abortions if European judges rule in favour of a French woman who lost her baby because of a medical blunder.
Lawyers for the 36-year-old woman asked the European Court of Human Rights yesterday to declare that a foetus is a human being entitled to the protection of the criminal law.
The case could have far-reaching implications for abortion laws in all 44 signatory countries to the European Convention on Human Rights.
The UK's Family Planning Association (FPA) is opposing the controversial application, arguing that if Mrs Thi-Nho Vo wins her case abortions and morning-after contraception could be made illegal. Anne Weyman, chief executive of the FPA, said the judges had three options. The most radical would be to rule that a foetus has the right to life from conception. Alternatively, the court could reject the application or set a new threshold for illegal abortions.
In written evidence supporting its intervention in the case the FPA argues that the right to life in article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights should not be extended to the unborn. The group says: "It is an issue of fundamental importance to the protection of women's rights to life, health, privacy, self-determination and equality."
The court in Strasbourg was told that Mrs Vo was the victim of a hospital mix-up in 1991 when she was six months pregnant. Doctors mistook her for another patient with the same name and wrongly operated on her for the removal of a coil when she had gone to the hospital for a routine medical examination. She lost her baby as result of the operation.
The French doctor was charged with unintentional homicide but in June 1996 the Lyons Criminal Court cleared him of all charges. On 13 March 1997 the Lyons Court of Appeal overturned the judgment, convicted the doctor of unintentional homicide and sentenced him to six months' imprisonment, suspended, and a fine of Fr10,000 (£1,070).
In a judgment on 30 June 1999, following an appeal on points of law, the Court of Cassation reversed the Court of Appeal's judgment. It also refused to consider the foetus as a human being entitled to the protection of the criminal law.
Relying on article 2 (right to life) of the human rights convention, Mrs Thi-Nho Vo challenged the French authorities' refusal to classify the unintentional killing of the child she was carrying as involuntary homicide. She maintains that the state has an obligation to provide legislation making such acts a criminal offence.
The Strasbourg court heard arguments yesterday on the admissibility and merits of the case. If the court rules that it has jurisdiction to hear the application, a judgment is expected in the next three months.
Earlier this month a British curate won the first round in her legal battle to stop doctors performing late abortions for cosmetic or trivial reasons.
The High Court in London gave permission for the Rev Joanna Jepson to challenge a decision by West Mercia police not to prosecute doctors who performed a late-stage abortion on a foetus which had been diagnosed as having a cleft lip and palate. Lord Justice Rose and Mr Justice Jackson said the case raised important issues of public concern that needed to be argued at a full hearing. Lawyers said the challenge could lead to a reform of abortion legislation if Ms Jepson succeeded in showing that the Abortion Act 1967 was incompatible with the Human Rights Act 2000.
Ms Jepson, 27, curate of St Michael's Church in Chester, brought her action after discovering that a mother had been granted an abortion beyond the 24-week legal limit for terminations because doctors believed a cleft palate could be a "serious handicap".