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
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
"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
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.
Though 54 percent of the French consider themselves Catholic, a
nationwide poll last year by SOFRES, a leading independent polling
agency, showed most respondents viewing abortion as justifiable.
Legal abortion was introduced in 1975, with termination now allowed
up to 12 weeks of pregnancy - and later, if there is a grave risk to
the mother's health or if the fetus is diagnosed as suffering from a
condition such as Down syndrome. …