PARIS 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.
Groups opposed to abortion 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. Abortion rights supporters 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 fetus could be entered into the civil registry if a couple wished to commemorate it that way.
"This means that a fetus 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 fetus 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."
Abortion rights campaigner Marie-Francoise Colombani, columnist for the women's magazine Elle, said the court had opened a Pandora's box by trying to accommodate grieving parents.
"Why don't we give legal status to what develops in a test tube during in vitro fertilization?" she asked. "The law is supposed to be a safeguard, but it has produced sheer folly."
IS AN EMBRYO A PERSON?
Defining "personhood" for the unborn is a complex medical and ethical issue. Opinions differ widely on when an embryo or fetus 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 fetus 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 grams. Any below that are usually treated as hospital waste and incinerated.
Three couples whose miscarried fetuses 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 fetus would not necessarily undermine France's current abortion law because that law merely decriminalized abortion under certain circumstances.
"To this day, abortion has never been legalized, it was just decriminalized. 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.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)