No Human Rights for Fetuses because of Undeveloped Nervous System: Ethicists

By Kathleen Gilbert

December 22, 2009 ( - While the unborn child could be considered a "patient," such a status should not be confused with having human rights - something the child would only gain later thanks to a more developed nervous system, insist the authors of a new report justifying the ethics of abortion. In a response to the article, however, a director at the National Catholic Bioethics Center said that the authors "really ought to learn to pick on those their own size," saying that "human fetuses or newborns do not need to be able to balance a checkbook or have a nervous system" before being given human rights. 

The article, entitled "An ethically justified practical approach to offering, recommending, performing, and referring for induced abortion and feticide" and written by Frank A. Chervenak, MD and Laurence B. McCullough, PhD, was published in the online American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology in September 2009.

The article's goal is to craft an ethical framework that allows for the killing of unborn children - and requires doctors to refer for the procedure - by making distinctions between "autonomy-based and beneficence-based obligations" and "professional conscience from individual conscience."

"Because of the immaturity of the fetal central nervous system, the fetus lacks the capacity to generate a perspective on its interests," write the doctors.  "The ethical principle of respect for autonomy and the concept of autonomy-based rights therefore do not apply to the fetus." 

The authors state that "one of the concept's main advantages" is that "it prevents ethical analysis of induced abortion and feticide in medical ethics from being paralyzed by divisive debates about a fetal right to life that have been going on for decades, indeed centuries, without any basis for resolution."

"Beneficence-based obligations to the fetus exist when the fetus is reliably expected later to achieve moral status as a child and person," they continue. 

The paper argues that, in the case of a viable child's severe disability, physicians and mothers also have "a beneficence-based obligation" to prevent risk of live birth by killing the child in the womb before expulsion.  Should the woman allow early induction but refuse feticide, the authors conclude, "such contradictory thinking suggests significant impairment of autonomous decision making," and thus "it is reasonable for the physician to require that the pregnant woman accept feticide as a condition for performing termination of her previable pregnancy."

Killing in the womb in such circumstances, they note, "exonerates the physician from being accused of performing a so-called partial-birth abortion."

In the matter of conscience rights, the authors maintain that all physicians, if unwilling to arrange an appointment with an abortionist, have an "obligation" to give women seeking abortions information about local abortion providers.  At the same time, the doctors claim that "providing information about fetal development or showing images of fetal development to prevent remorse or regret" is an "ethically impermissible distortion of the physician's professional role in the informed consent process."

(The full article is available here.)

In response to the article, Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D., the Director of Education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, said that "Chervenak, McCullough, and other academicians of their stripe really ought to learn to pick on those their own size, rather than leveraging their age and educational advantage to mount unjust attacks against those younger and not-yet-educated human beings still in the womb." 

"Human fetuses or newborns do not need to be able to balance a checkbook or have a nervous system before we will 'grant them moral status,' since their moral status and dignity doesn't depend on us granting it in the first place," Pacholczyk told (LSN) in an email Tuesday.

"Only the most pride-filled academician could ever suppose that he had the ability to grant moral status to a fellow human being who happens to be very young."

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