Wrongful Life?

The strange case of Nicholas Perruche

The law tells stories. So argues Catholic legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon in her short but fascinating book, Abortion and Divorce in Western Law. Glendon draws on anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s claim that law is a "culture system"-it "tells stories about the culture that helped to shape it and which in turn it shapes: stories about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going." Law’s stories, Geertz and Glendon argue, cannot but constitute who we are. Its language and concepts become part of our ordinary language and influence how we perceive reality.

At times, though, a law attempts to advance a story that seems radically out of step with what we understand to be true, with who we believe we are or who we wish to become. Such cases illustrate law’s constitutive power. A poignant example that has been wending its way through the French courts is the case of eighteen-year-old Nicholas Perruche, who recently won a claim for "wrongful life."

Nicholas was born in January 1983. Four weeks into his gestation, his four-year-old sister contracted German measles. His mother, aware that German measles can cause severe congenital handicaps, told her physician that if she tested positive for the disease she wanted an abortion rather than risk giving birth to a severely handicapped child. Mrs. Perruche underwent two blood tests, two weeks apart. Laboratory error gave contradictory results. Instead of...

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About the Author

M. Therese Lysaught is an associate professor of theology at Marquette University.