The court's Grand Chamber, a panel of 17 European judges, confirmed an earlier ruling by a lower chamber upholding a British law that stipulates consent from both parents is needed at every stage of the in vitro fertilization process, as well as for the storage and implantation of the fertilized eggs.
Natalie Evans, 35, had filed the case claiming the British law breached her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. She said her right to privacy and family life, and the embryo's right to life, were being violated by the decision of her former fiancé, Howard Johnston, to withdraw his permission for use of his sperm. She had also argued his attempt to block her having the baby was discriminatory.
But the court said there was no violation of the convention, and upheld its earlier ruling that said it was up to national law to define when the right to life began. Under British law, an embryo does not have independent rights or interests.
At a news conference in London after the ruling was announced in France, Evans broke down before reading a brief statement to the media.
"It's very hard for me to accept that the embryos will now be destroyed and I will never be a mother," she said through tears.
Evan's lawyer, Muiris Lyons, said at the news conference: "She has asked nothing from Mr. Johnston apart from his consent," adding that his client, "is, of course, terribly disappointed."
"It now appears likely that, unless Mr. Johnston changes his mind, the embryos will be destroyed," said Lyons. "There's nothing to stop him from giving his consent again, but I wouldn't expect him to."
The court said it felt "great sympathy" for Evans but ruled that her desire to become a parent should not be accorded greater weight than her former partner's right not to have a genetically related child with her.
Johnston also expressed sympathy for his former girlfriend's situation, and told Britain's Sky News he "hoped she would find the happiness she wants" through another means of becoming a mother.
Evans was left infertile after receiving treatment for cancer, but in 2001, prior to the removal of her ovaries, six of her eggs were fertilized by Johnston's sperm through in vitro fertilization.
The couple then split up, and Johnston withdrew his consent for her to use the embryos. Evans took him to a British court, but judges there rejected her legal appeals to implant an embryo, saying consent from both partners was needed and ordering the destruction of the embryos.
Johnston's lawyer, James Grigg, told Sky after the ruling that while he recognized the cause for sympathy, "the law in this country is very clear, consent is required from both parties through the entire process" of in vitro fertilization.
The European court requested a stay of the destruction order in February 2005 while it considered Evans' case. Tuesday's verdict is final and cannot be appealed, meaning the frozen embryos will have to be destroyed.