French Catholics Seek Legal Status for Embryos

Paris, France - France's Roman Catholic Church has called for embryos to be given a clear legal status following a court decision that let parents of miscarried fetuses enter them with a name in the official civil registry.

Anti-abortion groups in many countries have long argued for a legal status for embryos as the first step towards having courts rule that abortion is a form of murder. Pro-abortion groups vigorously oppose any such status.

But Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, head of the French bishops' conference, said establishing this status would not undermine legal abortion in France because of the way the law allowing the termination of pregnancies was constructed.

The Cour de Cassation, France's highest appeals court, ruled on February 6 that a miscarried foetus could be entered into the civil registry if a couple wished to commemorate it that way.

"This means that a foetus has a status," said Vingt-Trois, who is meeting fellow bishops this week to discuss bioethics issues. "What has happened in the past 50 years is that the legal status of the embryo and foetus has been rapidly changed. They have been turned into things.

"The Church's position is that we must act as if the embryo were a person," he told the Rennes daily Ouest-France. "We protect endangered animals so we should protect people too."


Defining "personhood" for the unborn is a complex medical and ethical issue. Opinions differ widely on when an embryo or foetus feels pain or takes on traits that show it is developing into a full human being.

The Catholic Church says an embryo is human life from the moment of conception and must be protected. Most legal systems protect the unborn after a fixed number of weeks of pregnancy but only grant full legal status to live-born babies.

In France, a miscarried foetus or stillborn child can be registered if it was once viable, defined as being older than 22 weeks of pregnancy or weighing more than 500 grammes. Any below that are usually treated as hospital waste and incinerated.

Three couples whose miscarried foetuses fell below those limits sued to register and bury them. The court agreed the limits were not legally binding and permitted registration.

Vingt-Trois said a legal status for a foetus would not necessarily undermine France's current abortion law because that law merely decriminalised abortion under certain circumstances.

"To this day, abortion has never been legalised, it was just decriminalised. That's not the same thing," he said, stressing the state did not establish a right to abortion but dropped what was considered punishment disproportionate to the act.