Abstract

BACKGROUND

Prenatal diagnosis based on different technologies is increasingly used in developed countries and has become a common strategy in obstetric practice. The tests are crucial in enabling mothers to make informed decisions about the possibility of terminating pregnancy. They have generated numerous bioethical and legal controversies in the field of ‘wrongful life’ claims (action brought by or on behalf of a child against the mother or other people, claiming that he or she has to endure a not-worth-living existence) and ‘wrongful birth’ claims (action brought by the mother or parents against the physician for being burdened with an unwanted, often disabled child, which could have been avoided).

OBJECTIVE AND RATIONALE

The possibility which exists nowadays to intervene actively by programming and deciding the phases linked to procreation and birth has raised several questions worldwide. The mother's right to self-determination could be an end but whether or not this right is absolute is debatable. Freedom could, with time, act as a barrier that obstructs intrusion into other people's lives and their personal choices. Therapeutic choices may be manageable in a liberal sense, and the sanctity of life can be inflected in a secular sense. These sensitive issues and the various points of view to be considered have motivated this review.

SEARCH METHODS

Literature searches were conducted on relevant demographic, social science and medical science databases (SocINDEX, Econlit, PopLine, Medline, Embase and Current Contents) and via other sources. Searches focused on subjects related to bioethical and legal controversies in the field of preimplantation and prenatal diagnosis, wrongful birth and wrongful life. A review of the international state of law was carried out, focusing attention on the peculiar issue of wrongful life and investigating the different jurisdictional solutions of wrongful life claims in a comparative survey.

OUTCOMES

Courts around the world are generally reluctant to acknowledge wrongful life claims due to their ethical and legal implications, such as existence as an injury, the right not to be born, the nature of the harm suffered and non-existence as an alternative to a disabled life. Most countries have rejected such actions while at the same time approving those for wrongful birth. Some countries, such as France with a law passed in March 2002, have definitively excluded Wrongful Life action. Only in the Netherlands and in three states of the USA (California, Washington and New Jersey) Wrongful Life actions are allowed. In other countries, such as Belgium, legislation is unclear because, despite a first decision of the Court allowing Wrongful Life action, the case is still in progress. There is a complete lack of case law regarding wrongful conception, wrongful birth and wrongful life in a few countries, such as Estonia.

WIDER IMPLICATIONS

The themes of ‘wrongful birth’ and ‘wrongful life’ are charged with perplexing ethical dilemmas and raise delicate legal questions. These have met, in various countries and on certain occasions, with different solutions and have triggered ethical and juridical debate. The damage case scenarios result from a lack of information or diagnosis prior to the birth, which deprives the mother of the chance to terminate the pregnancy.

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