European court to rule on status of human embryos

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Are embryos property, or do they have rights? This is the decision that is soon to be faced by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.

The case has arisen after Adelina Parrillo, a 48-year-old Italian woman, chose in 2002 to have children with her husband via Medically Assisted Procreation.

The woman suffers from endometriosis, a condition where tissue that behaves like the lining of the womb is found outside the womb. This causes discomfort during menstruations, pain in the pelvis and other areas, and crucially infertility.

Parrillo had five embryos created and stored for implantation at a later date, but in 2003 her husband died and she abandoned plans to have the embryos implanted. In 2004, laws were passed in Italy that criminalised the destruction of all human embryos, including for scientific research purposes.

Although Ms Parrillo is unable to destroy the embryos, she is claiming property rights over the embryos in order to have them destroyed.

She claims to have property rights over the five frozen embryos under the European Convention on Human Rights, and that this and her right to privacy have both been breached by the law in Italy prohibits her from giving up the embryos for destruction through scientific research.

Instead of destroying them, Ms Parrillo has been forced to keep the embryos in a state of cryopreservation until they lose their viability for implantation.

The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) has spoken out in opposition to Ms Parrillo's assertions of property rights over her embryos.

The ECLJ argues that the right of Ms Parrillo to destroy her foetuses cannot be inferred from a woman's right to an abortion.

"Abortion allows the destruction of embryos in utero in order to protect the right to life and health of the mother. The destruction of embryos in vitro is not necessary to protect a comparable, concurrent right, such as the right to life of the mother," the centre said.

"From the moment when the Italian legislature agreed to recognise the embryo in vitro as a subject and the principle of primacy of the human being is applicable, it became impossible to grant the applicant's requests."

The ECLJ says that the case is a confluence of two types of liberalism - economic liberalism in the form of the biotech industry pushing for its economic interests to be legally protected over the rights of the embryo, and moral liberalism, which would demand that the principle of live and let live does not apply to that which has not been born.

"With this Parrillo case, the Court is called on to decide whether, within this domain, the liberal approach should supplant the ontological conception of human rights based on the inherent dignity of each human being which inspired the drafting of the Convention," the ECLJ said.

This case is one of a number of recent movements to further defend the rights of the unborn within the EU context.

The "One of Us" European Citizens Initiative has gathered more than 1.8 million signatures to its petition demanding that the EU "establish a ban and end the financing of activities which presuppose the destruction of human embryos".

The petition followed the Brüstle v. Greenpeace case on the use of embryonic stem cells in developing a treatment for Parkinson's disease. As part of this case, the European Court of Justice ruled that a human ovule must be regarded as a human embryo and recognised that an embryo "initiates the human development process".

This essentially represented an EU-level decision about when life begins, prompting pro-life groups to initiate the "One of Us" European Citizens Initiative.

A ruling from the Grand Chamber is expected in the next few months.