In what is set to be a landmark judgement, the Strasbourg based European Court of Human Rights held that an Italian ban that prevented a couple of healthy carriers of a genetic disease (cystic fibrosis) from screening embryos for in vitro fertilisation was in violation of their right to respect for their private and family life. (Costa and Pavan vs Italy, application 54270/10 – Judgement of 28th August 2012 not yet final).
The couple in question had already had one child. It was through this child that they found out that they were both healthy carriers of the disease cystic fibrosis . Italian law prohibits “PID” (preimplantation diagnosis) and therefore the couple would be unable to go through a pregnancy without first ensuring that the new child would not suffer from the dangerous and fatal disease of cystic fibrosis.
From the ECHR press release:
Relying on Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life), the applicants complained that the only course open to them to have a baby that did not have cystic fibrosis was to start a pregnancy by natural means and medically terminate it every time the foetus tested positive for the disease. Under Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination), they claimed that they were victims of discrimination compared with sterile couples or those where the man had a sexually transmissible disease.
The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 20 September 2010. At the applicants’ request, on 4 May 2011 it was decided to give the case priority (Rule 41 of the Rules of Court). The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), the “Movimento per la vita” association and 52 Italian MPs, as one third party intervener, and the “Luca Coscioni”, “Amica Cicogna Onlus”, “Cerco un bimbo” and “L’altra cicogna” associations, together with 60 Italian and European MPs, as another third party intervener, were authorised to submit written observations (Article 36 § 2 of the Convention and Rule 44 § 3 of the Rules of
The Court considered that the applicants’ desire to resort to medically-assisted procreation and PID in order to have a baby that did not suffer from cystic fibrosis was a form of expression of their private and family life that fell within the scope of Article 8. The fact that the law did not allow them to proceed in this manner therefore amounted to an interference with their right to respect for their private and family life which was “in accordance with the law”5 and pursued the legitimate aims of protecting morals and the rights and freedoms of others.
The Italian Government justified this interference by the need to protect the health of the mother and child and the dignity and freedom of conscience of the medical professions, and to avoid the risk of eugenic abuses. The Court observed first of all that the notions of “embryo” and “child” must not be confused. It could not see how, in the event that the foetus proved to have the disease, a medically-assisted abortion could be reconciled with the Government’s justifications, considering, among other things, the consequences of such a procedure for both the foetus and the parents, particularly the mother.
The Court stressed the difference between this case, which concerned PID and homologous insemination, and that of S.H. v. Austria, which concerned access to donor insemination. Furthermore, although the question of access to PID raised delicate issues of a moral and ethical nature, the legislative choices made by Parliament in the matter did not elude the Court’s supervision. The Court noted that of the 32 Council of Europe member States whose legislation it examined, PID was only prohibited in Italy, Austria and Switzerland (regulated access to PID was currently being examined in Switzerland).
The Court observed that the inconsistency in Italian law – prohibiting the implantation of only those embryos which were healthy, but authorising the abortion of foetuses which showed symptoms of the disease – left the applicants only one choice, which brought anxiety and suffering: starting a pregnancy by natural means and terminating it if prenatal tests showed the foetus to have the disease. The Court accordingly considered that the interference with the applicants’ right to respect for their private and family life was disproportionate, in breach of Article 8.
Discrimination, within the meaning of Article 14, meant treating persons in similar situations differently without an objective and reasonable justification. Here the Court noted that, where access to PID was concerned, couples in which the man was infected with a sexually transmissible disease were not treated differently to the applicants, as the prohibition applied to all categories of people. This part of the application was therefore rejected as being manifestly ill-founded.
Just satisfaction (Article 41)
The court held that Italy was to pay the applicants 15,000 euros (EUR) in respect of nonpecuniary
damage and EUR 2,500 in respect of costs and expenses.