Paris court attacks abortion law

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: (Published 15 July 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:149

A court in Paris astonished the French Ministry of Justice and legal system last week by challenging the 1993 law that makes it a criminal offence to obstruct abortions. The court acquitted nine anti-abortion protestors who had broken into the maternity ward of the public hospital Pitie-Salpetriere last November and prayed at the entrance of a ward where patients were admitted for abortions. Hospital staff called the police, complaining that the protestors were interfering with the running of the ward.

The protestors were charged with breaking the 1993 law, and their trial started last month in front of a tribunal that deals with minor offences. Last week judges acquitted them, ruling that they had not interfered with abortions being carried out because none were taking place at the time of their demonstration. But the judges went to on say that the law authorising abortion conflicted with another law that gives legal immunity to anyone breaking the law in the course of trying to protect a person's life. The judges said that the fetus could be considered to be a person and that since the law punishes anyone who abandons his or her child, regardless of the child's age, the protestors were defending the fetus.

In what some legal experts have criticised as a convoluted argument the judges went on to say that the fetus should be protected even if it is not a person since it could not be considered as a “nothing.”

The Syndicat de la Magistrature, the association of French magistrates, said that the tribunal had denied the right to abortion that was originally set out in law in 1975. Veronique Neietz, who drafted the 1993 law, said that she was “scandalised by an extreme right wing judicial decision that appears to be revenge” for a parliamentary decision two weeks ago to exclude anti-abortion protestors from the amnesty traditionally granted after presidential elections to people who have committed minor offences.

During the same week two other tribunals, in Lyons and Bourg-en-Bresse, sentenced 45 anti-abortion campaigners to suspended prison terms and fines ranging from pounds sterling1000 to pounds sterling2500. But the direct challenge by a court of law underlines the frailty of the current abortion law.—ALEXANDER DOROZYNSKI, medical journalist, Paris

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