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France debates right not to be born

A Paris court ruled last week that disabled children can sue doctors over not having aborted them.

By Nanette van der LaanSpecial to the Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 2001



PARIS

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The first thing doctors asked Willemijn Forest, after she gave birth last year to a baby boy diagnosed with Down syndrome, was whether she wanted to keep her child.

"After the delivery, they took him away immediately, assuming I did not want to see him anymore," says the Dutch woman who lives in Marseilles, the country's second-largest city. "I said of course I want to keep him. I was so appalled by their attitude."

These days, Forest, like many other parents here who have children diagnosed with mental disabilities, is no longer shocked.

Last week France's highest appeals court ruled that children with Down syndrome have a legal right never to have been born and could sue doctors that attended the pregnancy.

For parents like Forest, the ruling demonstrates a view, which she says is widespread in French society, that a disabled life is not worth living.

The judgment, which confirmed a previous ruling in a similar case, has caused a furor in France, sparking a national debate on a whole host of ethical issues.

In their Nov. 28 ruling, three judges said that a doctor had negligently failed to warn an expectant mother that pre-natal scans showed that her baby had the symptoms of Down syndrome. The baby, who was only identified as Lionel, was born in 1995. His mother argued that she would have aborted if she had been given a correct pre-natal diagnosis.

Although most in France agree that the parents should receive financial aid for Lionel's specialized care, many are offended by the nature of the mother's grievance: that her son had been allowed to be born.

The judges in Lionel's case decided that the doctor was "100 percent" liable for the cost of the care needed for the child, since the diagnostic error meant that the mother was not given the chance to abort. The court had already awarded damages of around $100,000, five years earlier. Last week's ruling ordered the sum to be substantially increased. The exact amount is to be announced at the end of January.

Parents of mentally disabled children who gathered outside the courthouse to hear the verdict, said they were outraged by the ruling.

"Certain judges still believe that it is better to be dead than to be handicapped," says Xavier Mirabel, spokesman for the Collective Against Handiphobia, a group that fights for rights for the disabled.

Mr. Mirabel says the most worrying aspect is that the ruling confirmed a similar decision by the same court last year. In November 2000, the court ruled that Nicolas Perruche - born severely disabled - should receive damages from his mother's doctor, who had failed to warn her of the dangers of rubella (also known as German measles) during pregnancy. That case immediately caused widespread consternation, but many thought the ruling was an exception.

Mirabel's Collective Against Handiphobia has since brought its own case, charging that the Perruche case amounted to a dysfunction of the justice system.

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