Below is a story I wrote for Our Sunday Visitor about a French Vietnamese emigre who lost her unborn child because of a medical error and pursued the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, where she was defeated -- and the human race along with her. At question was the humanity of the unborn child, something which the Court said it could not define.
Interestingly, when I wrote this story, I could have broken it in France. When I got a hold of some contacts there who should have known about it, none of them did.
Also, I owe special thanks to Jeff Gardner who helped me with translating the communications from M. Le Griel.
The Case of Madame Vo
In a case that has European abortion advocates all in a flutter, a French Vietnamese immigrant is asking for nothing less than that the European Court of Human Rights declare that life begins at conception and should be legally protected.
Thi-Nho Vo was six months pregnant when she went to the public hospital in Lyon in 1991 for a routine check-up. At the same time, another Vietnamese immigrant, Thanh Van Vo, was in the same hospital to have a contraceptive device removed.
Thi-Nho Vo did not speak or understand French very well and a clinic worker confused the two women’s files. When the physician on duty, Dr. Francois Golfier, walked into Thi-Nho Vo’s exam room, he assumed she was to have an IUD removed and admitted to the court that he did not do a preliminary exam. Instead, he inserted a measuring device into her cervix and punctured the amniotic sac.
Vo was then hospitalized for a couple of days with the hope that the sac would heal itself, and then released. But she was back in the hospital four days later and on Dec. 5 a “therapeutic interruption” was performed with a dead baby girl being born.
Vo immediately informed French authorities of what happened, an investigation was opened and Golfier was charged with involuntary homicide. After four and a half years, the district court in Lyon acquitted Golfier and dismissed the case. Vo appealed and won. However, the appeals court did not convict the physician under French law but under European law. Golfier was fined 10,000 francs and given a suspended sentenced of six months in prison.
When it was appealed to France’s highest court, the Court de Cassation, the European law was ignored and the court ruled that Golfier did not violate French law because the baby who was killed was not a person under French law.
Vo’s attorney, Bruno Le Griel, strenuously objects to that reading of the law. “I believe that one would have difficulty,” he told OSV, “admitting to the man on the street that what was carried in her, this pregnant woman, and what she lost by the fault of a third party, was simply a mass of cells and not a human being; a baby, her baby.”
Le Griel is making a last-ditch attempt to have that overruled by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. As he told the BBC, “I will be asking the court to recognize reality, that is to say the human life, a human being, begins at the moment of conception.”
The Convention of Human Rights for the European Union states in article two, “The right of every person to life is protected by the law. Death cannot be inflicted on anyone intentionally, save in the execution of a capital sentence by a tribunal in the case of an offense that is punished by that penalty under the law.”
Le Griel is taking his case to Strasbourg on the basis of the first sentence of that article. “Life has a right to be protected from attacks brought against it not only in a voluntary fashion, but equally in an involuntary fashion (by imprudence or negligence),” he told OSV via e-mail.
Pro-abortion people, Le Griel said, “wish to hide the truth concerning the subject of medical abortion, that it is a voluntary homicide. A legal homicide, certainly, but a homicide.”
Those who are opposing him consider him and his client “not as fanatics, but more so as champions of a retrograde and condemnable ‘moral order.’”
Le Griel is using an interesting tack in his arguments before the court. To help demonstrate the humanity of the human embryo, he points to the work done by Drs. Edwards and Steptoe, the British researchers who developed in vitro fertilization and brought the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown into existence. “They were able to definitively show,” he argued, “that at the instant of fertilization, the human embryo developed entirely by itself, by the proper avenues, and that it showed an extraordinary vitality.”
This, he said, demonstrates that the child is a completely different entity from its parents and so should be protected under European and French law.
Le Griel is fighting an uphill battle. Europeans, by and large, are secularized and protecting human life “is not the way European family law is going,” said Helen Alvare, law professor at the Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C.
“Germany surprised us some years ago when their supreme court said abortion is not good,” she noted, “but the trajectory of family law in Europe is the U.S. times two [Gerry or Cherie -- or should we say “x 2 ?] moving toward abortion.”
Indeed, Vo’s case before France’s Court de Cassation came after two previous cases involving children who were stillborn, one because of a car accident and the other because of a midwife’s negligence. In both of those cases the court did not afford any protection under French criminal law.
The appeal to Strasbourg comes after a hot debate on protecting the unborn in the French National Assembly. A legislator proposed protection against “involuntary interruption” of pregnancy, similar to the proposed Laci and Connor Act before the U.S. Congress. However, it was withdrawn because of vigorous opposition from physicians and feminists.
Despite the fact that the Vo case could have huge ramifications on the life issues in Europe, French people are surprisingly ignorant of its existence. “99.99 percent of the people know nothing” about it, said Bertrand de la Fouchardiere, a Catholic layman in Versailles. No polls have been taken on the subject.
Those papers that have covered it have characterized Vo’s Catholic supporters as being “extreme” and close to Le Pen, the ultra-nationalist party leader in southern France, Fouchardiere said. He called this a “pretty bad association” and one that is not true.
The Strasbourg court has heard arguments about whether to take the case or not. A decision is expected in the next couple of months.