Signs of Hope for the Unborn

Recent Decisions Recognize Value of Fetuses and Embryos

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PARIS, JAN. 19, 2002 (Zenit.org).- 2002 is looking hopeful for the unborn -- maybe. Last week the French National Assembly, in a decision that is expected to be confirmed by the Senate, voted overwhelmingly against a legal decision that established the "right not to be born."



The new law comes after three legal cases in which judges ruled that families whose children were born with birth defects could sue because doctors did not spot the problems during prenatal scans, according to a BBC report Jan. 10. The bill clearly states that "nobody can claim to have been harmed simply by being born."

The problems started in November 2000 when France´s highest court awarded damages to Nicolas Perruche, a teen-ager born with severe mental and physical disabilities. His mother had been infected with rubella during her pregnancy and she argued that if doctors had correctly diagnosed the illness, she would have had an abortion.

Support groups for disabled people had called the court ruling demeaning, the New York Times reported Jan. 11. Ethicists said it encouraged eugenics, by making it more likely that doctors would recommend abortions at the slightest sign of a problem during the pregnancy.

The week before Parliament voted, French doctors, angry at the court ruling and worried about increases in their malpractice insurance premiums, began refusing to carry out routine ultrasound scans on pregnant women, saying they could be sued if a disabled baby was born.

In the United States, meanwhile, a judge in the state of Utah ruled that Roger MacGuire should be charged with homicide for the murder of a fetus.

The Salt Lake Tribune on Jan. 8 reported that when Susan MacGuire was shot and killed, her unborn child also died. Prosecutors then charged the woman´s ex-husband with two counts of capital murder. Defense attorneys argued there was only one death, claiming the fetus -- estimated at 13 to 15 weeks old -- was not a person under Utah´s homicide statute because it could not have survived outside the womb.

But Judge Michael Allphin, of the 2nd District Court, sided with prosecutors. The case will probably end up before the Utah Supreme Court, forcing the justices to define what is an "unborn child."

Last year in Kansas, judges already showed greater recognition of the rights of a fetus. In a unanimous decision, that state´s Supreme Court ruled that doctors have a duty to the fetus in a "welcomed pregnancy," the Washington Times reported Oct. 7.

"We hold, as a matter of law, that a physician who has a doctor-patient relationship with a pregnant woman who intends to carry her fetus to term and deliver a healthy baby also has a doctor-patient relationship with the fetus," said the Kansas Supreme Court.

Limits on research using embryos

In Canada last week, the province of Quebec prohibit research using stem cells from embryos. The National Post on Jan. 11 reported that David Cliche, Quebec´s Minister of State for Science and Technology, said the provincial government would not permit any experiments on stem cells coming from human embryos.

In December, federal Minister of Health Allan Rock said he approved of using stem cells derived from embryos that were created through in vitro fertilization. He suggested using those embryos left over from fertility treatments, with the consent of the couple.

But Cliche staked out a sharply different position for Quebec. "There is currently a debate about the possibility of allowing research on human stem cells taken from embryos that were left over from in vitro fertilization," he said. ´´In Quebec, this is forbidden. It is not practiced." Cliche also said the government is considering outlawing human cloning by making an amendment to the provincial Civil Code.

Margaret Somerville, an ethicist at the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, said she approves of the Quebec position. "It´s a respect for all-stages-of-life position, from the earliest embryo to when we are dead," she said.

Further efforts to limit research using embryos are still at the level of proposals. In Florida, two legislators are planning to introduce a bill banning human cloning. State Senator Alex Villalobos plans to introduce the new measure along with Representative Jim Kallinger, the Sun-Sentinal newspaper reported Jan. 8.

Five states have banned reproductive human cloning, and several others have tried or are considering it this year. "We´re talking about creation to destroy human life," said Lynda Bell, a spokeswoman for Florida Right to Life.

In California, meanwhile, a committee of medical, legal and ethics experts came down with a report that only partially protects embryos. The group recommended that the state should ban cloning of human embryos for reproductive purposes, but allow cloning for research and medical ends.

The Los Angeles Times on Jan. 12 reported that the committee recommends that cloning be allowed only under regulation, and says cloned embryos should not be implanted in a womb or grown past a very early stage of embryo development -- roughly 14 days after fertilization.

Since California is the state with the largest number of biotechnology companies -- and one of the few that has a law banning cloning -- actions taken there could be of great importance. Its five-year ban on reproductive cloning expires at the end of 2002.

Catholic and pro-life groups are unhappy with the report. The committee´s proposal is not "a ban on cloning at all -- it´s a ban on live birth," said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It allows unlimited cloning and then requires the clones to be destroyed instead of being born alive. That´s an immoral policy."

Committee members said the medical promise of research using cloning justifies it. Studying very early embryos raises fewer ethical problems than allowing cloned children to be born, committee members said.

But University of Southern California bioethicist Alexander Capron said he would prefer to see a moratorium on all forms of cloning. If some forms are allowed, it will be almost impossible to prevent unscrupulous laboratories from trying to clone babies, he said. Since researchers are nowhere near being able to produce clones for therapy, there would be little cost to continuing a moratorium, he added.

On Friday, meanwhile, a National Academy of Sciences panel said cloning to reproduce humans is unsafe and should be illegal, but cloning to produce stem cells for medical research has "considerable potential" and should be permitted. The recommendation could prove influential as U.S. senators prepare to debate whether to join the House of Representatives in banning the technique for any purpose.

At an international level, moves are under way to formulate a global treaty to ban human cloning. The United Nations legal committee backed a resolution calling for a pact to outlaw cloning, according to the Associated Press on Nov. 19.

France and Germany sponsored the initiative. They say cloning is unacceptable and incompatible with human dignity. Under the draft resolution, a group would meet twice during 2002 to define what should be negotiated in an international convention to ban the practice.

Christian Much, legal adviser to the Germany´s U.N. mission, welcomed the endorsement, but said a final treaty might still be three years away.

In his annual address Jan. 10 to foreign ambassadors assigned to the Holy See, John Paul II listed the main challenges lying before humanity today.

First on the list was "the defense of the sacredness of human life in all circumstances, especially in relation to the challenges posed by genetic manipulation." Achieving this will be no easy task, but at least the year has started on a positive note.