Donald School Journal of Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology
Volume 17 | Issue 1 | Year 2023

Medical Ethics in Gynecology and Perinatology

Morana Brkljacic

Catholic University of Croatia; Department of Medical Ethics, University of Zagreb, School of Medicine; Special Hospital AGRAM - Polyclinic Rijeka, Croatia

Corresponding Author: Morana Brkljacic, Catholic University of Croatia; Department of Medical Ethics, University of Zagreb, School of Medicine; Special Hospital AGRAM - Polyclinic Rijeka, Croatia, Phone: +385915478513, e-mail:

Received on: 15 January 2023; Accepted on: 10 February 2023; Published on: 14 April 2023


Background: This paper aims to present medical ethics in perinatal medicine as application of some key ethical principles to the practice of perinatal medicine.

Methods: This is review of how medical science, combined with the progress of technology, has contributed in many ways to improving the maintenance of human health. Medical ethics acts as a functional interface between medicine, science, and ethics.

Results: Medical ethics links scientific endeavor and its application into adaptive forms of ethical consensus. Its major elements are an increased understanding of biological systems and the responsible use of technology in tune with new scientific insights. When does a human being become a person? When does personhood end? These critical questions are some of the most interesting and affecting in medical ethics; at the beginning and end of life rights of the mother versus rights of the fetus, abortion, assisted reproduction and surrogacy are the hot-button issues that can be addressed with medical ethics.

Conclusion: Bioethics should represent a new scientific ethics that connects humility, responsibility, and ability; a science that is interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and global, and that exalts the meaning of humanity. It perceives the man’s well-being in the context of respect for nature, and as such, should become a kind of a “science of survival”.

How to cite this article: Brkljacic M. Medical Ethics in Gynecology and Perinatology. Donald School J Ultrasound Obstet Gynecol 2023;17(1):47-53.

Source of support: Nil

Conflict of interest: None

Keywords: Bioethics, Gynecology, Human being, Medical ethics, Medicine, Science.

This paper was presented at the symposium Zagreb—New York ethical and perinatal dialogue (first International symposium when does human life begin? Ethics, law, and professionalism in reproductive medicine; and fetal neurology—from short to long-term follow-up—how to proceed? Multicenter results on the clinical use of Kurjak’s antenatal neurodevelopmental test), held on 8–9th October 2022 in Zagreb, Croatia.


Ethics, sometimes known as philosophical ethics, ethical theory, moral theory, and moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct, often addressing disputes of moral diversity. The term comes from the Greek word ηθικός ethikos from ἦθος ethos, which means “custom, habit.” Philosophical ethics investigates what the best way for humans to live is and what kinds of actions are right or wrong in particular circumstances.1

Ethics and morality mean the same thing to many people, and they are similar. Morals are used to describe personal character, whereas ethics defines behavior in different situations. Morality refers to personal character, beliefs, and behavior; ethics is about the reflection on morality and deciding how to act as a person or a professional. An ethical person and moral person are usually one and the same. We use medical ethics to refer to those guidelines and behaviors that we expect a medical professional with moral integrity to exhibit.

Medical ethics acts as a practical interface between medicine, science, and ethics. It links scientific endeavor and its application into adaptive forms of ethical consensus. Its major elements are an increased understanding of biological systems and the responsible use of technology in tune with new scientific insights.2

Medical science, combined with the progress of technology, has contributed in many ways to improving the maintenance of human health and, thus, inevitably extending the length of human life. Along with the growing application of various medical-technological aids with the aim of extending the length of life, medicine necessarily had to develop and has developed a set of new principles necessary to solve complex ethical problems.


In the past decades, medical ethics/bioethics has lived a very rich and complex history, and today clinical ethics represents its most prominent and dynamic segment. Taking into account clinical ethics’ most important characteristics (focus on questions of ethics in the continuous, daily care for the patient, discussions about different models of ethical decision-making in practice and the importance of education and research), Fletcher and Brody have identified three focal points of any clinical ethics program in a healthcare institution:

Medical ethics, which is now being practiced under the name of bioethics, is a short-term tactic; in fact, it is clinical ethics, which deals with dilemmas faced by doctors, their patients, and those who care for patients. Global bioethics, in turn, calls upon medical ethicists to consider the basic meaning of bioethics and to expand their thinking and actions to global public health problems. Medical ethicists are obliged to consider not only the everyday clinical decisions but also long-term consequences of actions they recommend or fail to consider. Medical ethics are simply some key ethical principles applied to the practice of medicine. These principles are the bedrock of good clinical practice and they are autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence and justice. Using these principles in each individual case, it can be easier to make difficult decisions with your patients as you guide them through their care.4

Medical ethics as professional ethics is the area of application of general ethical principles to the specific material of medical practice. Two important qualifications make it exclusively the area of activity of medics and other health professionals:5

Both medicine and its medical ethics should refer to an ethical attitude toward the patient, especially one suffering from a difficult or incurable disease, as well as an ethical approach to his pain and needs.

All of Hippocrates’ traditional medical thought emphasized beneficence. Its goal is to do the best possible for the patient, but at the same time, it is necessary to emphasize that in modern times when medical ethics is on the scene, it is important not only to do a good deed but also to have permission for that deed, which is emphasized through the notion of patient autonomy in making decisions.6 Patient autonomy is one of the most important ethical principles in medicine, including in oncology, and is based on the patient’s decision about treatment after being informed about it, that is, on informed consent. The doctor is obliged to adapt the information to the patient’s education and ability to understand, and he must give it not too late so that the patient can finish his work and fulfill his obligations on time.7 Ethical values, both in medicine and in patient care, are achieved through four fundamental ethical principles.8

Beneficence and nonmaleficence require from the person caring for the patient the obligation of maximum benefit and minimum harm to the patient. Perhaps, seemingly, it seems a very simple task to fulfill the above principles; however, what is the peak of well-being and harmlessness for one patient, should not be for another patient, or it does not seem to that patient that maximum benefit and minimum harm for him has been achieved. Huge diversity of cultures, religions, beliefs, and ways of life indicates the need of the one who cares for the patient not to hesitate to ask the patient what is best for him and in what way to do it best. It is precisely through this method of communication that we, as guardians, ensure the maximum of doing good, that is, not doing harm.

Autonomy is a principle based on the patient’s self-awareness and self-determination and his right to make a decision. The concept of integrity (integration) and informed consent are key to all discussions of patient autonomy. Also, as caregivers and members of an interdisciplinary team (either doctors, nurses, or other health personnel), we must be ready for “informed disagreement-refusal” as one of the possibilities of the patient’s choice and thus prove our ethical maturity in respecting the patient’s decision-making autonomy.

Fairness represents the principle that is the main way out in solving all discussions whose core problem lies in diversity. Diversity (inequality), especially of opinions and attitudes, is the most common problem of the patient not believing in the decisions of both the medical professional and the interdisciplinary team.

It is also necessary to mention truthfulness and trust as derived ethical principles whose role is precisely in the moments of telling the truth about the diagnosis (cancer and oncological disease), the basis of building a quality relationship between the patient and the members of the healthcare team and finds its foothold in telling the truth, keeping a secret and fulfilling promises.


The practice of medicine is an art and a science. Art comes from dealing with human beings, which can be fragile and unpredictable when they are sick and need your help. Science comes from years of research and study.

Medical ethics puts the art and science together in practical applications to tricky problems. Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s possible to learn from medical errors and design your/our practice so they are caught and fixed before they become serious problems or affect patients. As physicians, we follow patients through their lives, from prenatal care and dealing with the ethical issues of pregnancy, abortion, and reproductive technology, to treating children and working with parents.9

Everyone is a patient at some point in their life, so understanding the philosophical/ethical side of medicine can only make the process smoother, and the more medical providers understand the ethics of their profession, the more satisfying their work lives will be.


When does Personhood End?

These critical questions are some of the most interesting and affecting in medical ethics at the beginning and end of life rights of the mother vs the rights of the fetus, abortion assisted reproduction and surrogacy are the hot-button issues that can be addressed with medical ethics. Pregnant women are a special subject in medical ethics.

Technically, there is only one patient, but two/more lives are in the balance. Healthcare providers must weigh issues such as medication, treatments for disease, and the autonomy of both patients. Sometimes what is good for the mother is not good for the fetus, and vice versa. Because their rights may sometimes compete, doctors must understand the ethical and legal challenges of that balancing act. The rights of the mother may automatically be diminished if it’s decided that the fetus has the same rights as a full person.

Most women choose to be pregnant and consent to treatments offered to them. But in some circumstances, some women won’t consent to medical interventions that restrict their freedom or endanger their health during pregnancy, even if these treatments may be in the best interest of the fetus. A few women have even refused treatments that may save their fetus’s life with little risk or inconvenience to themselves.10

One of the very famous cases was the case of Samantha Burton. Burton v. Florida, 49 So.3d 263 (2010), was a Florida District Court of Appeals case ruling that the court cannot impose unwanted treatment on a pregnant woman “in the best interests of the fetus” without providing evidence of fetal viability. The case was decided in Ms Burton’s favor in August 2010 by the Florida District Court of Appeals.11


Given these ethical considerations, we, as healthcare providers, must balance the health of the mother and fetus during pregnancy.

There are medical treatments for the mother that can harm the fetus:

There are medical treatments for the fetus that have the potential to harm the mother:


The advent of the birth control pill changed women’s lives forever. In fact, the advent of accessible and reliable birth control has changed society.

Birth control has given women a more reliable way to prevent both unwanted pregnancies and dependence on one particular man because of a shared biological child. There are two kinds of birth control—one prevents fertilization, such as the pill and barrier methods and the other prevents implantation, such as the intrauterine device (IUD) and the morning-after pill. Some people/providers feel that this second type of birth control is actually abortion because rather than preventing the egg from being fertilized, these forms of birth control prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine lining.12 Parental consent isn’t required to treat minors in certain situations, such as sex education and prescribing contraceptives. In some states, minors can seek an abortion without parental permission. Mature minors or minor children who are old enough to understand the consequences of sexual acts can get prescriptions for birth control and other treatment related to sexuality.

When counseling a patient about birth control, you should tell her:


Religious ethics and edicts play a large part in the lives of many people. Devout members of some religions choose to forgo medical treatment. Some religions prohibit certain types of treatment. And religious ethics can play a large part in birth control. In any case, it is important for you, for the provider, to understand different religious points of view about this issue so you can treat your patient. And you must respect your patients’ decision about whether to use birth control and which type to use.14,15

The different religions and their views on birth control include:

It is important to remember that religious beliefs about birth control are important to both patients and providers, but your personal beliefs should not interfere with your patient’s rights to the care they want and deserve.


A person is classified as pro-life if they don’t believe abortion should be available on demand. This side focuses on the rights and moral status of the embryo and fetus. Pro-life individuals believe that human life should be valued from conception to natural death. In most pro-life arguments, personhood begins at conception, and this side believes that any deliberate destruction of human life is ethically wrong. Those on the pro-life side do not think that the destruction of life is ever mitigated by benefits to others. From the pro-life view, any action which destroys an embryo or fetus kills a person and that is always wrong.

One well-known ethical position that supports the pro-life view is proposed by federal judge John Noonan says that genetic criteria are all that is needed to assign rights to an embryo. In other words, when sperm and egg meet and merge genes, a genetically unique person is created. The embryo has all the potential in its DNA to become a full person; therefore, it has a right to life that is absolute. This argument rests on the presumption that if you are conceived by two human beings, you are a human being and have personhood, no matter your stage of development. In this scenario, abortion is argued to be wrong because it takes the life of a genetically unique person beginning at conception.


The pro-choice stance is based on autonomy, privacy and self-determination. This side focuses on the rights and moral status of the mother. The pro-choice side believes that because she bears the burdens of pregnancy, birth and raising a child, a woman should be able to decide if she wants to let her pregnancy proceed. The pro-choice side argues that this decision belongs to the mother alone, and that government has no jurisdiction on this issue.

This side believes that an embryo or fetus gradually attains moral standing and legal rights as it develops but doesn’t have them from the moment of conception or during the first few months of gestational development. A famous ethical argument on the pro-choice side is made by Judith Jarvis Thomson, an American philosopher who studied and worked on ethics and metaphysics; compares pregnancy to one person being attached to another person for the purpose of survival. The existence of the first person depends on the second person giving up rights to keep the first person alive. Thompson argues that no one has the right to impose himself on another person for survival. She argues that you would have the right to choose to unplug yourself from this person and recover your freedom, even if it means the death of the other person. Thomson states, “I propose, then, that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception.” Now the ethical dilemma is this—if both mother and uterine child are both human and both have rights to life, can abortion be ethically permitted where the woman does not want to continue her pregnancy?

In ethics, there are two kinds of rights—positive and negative.

Positive rights are the right to some kind of benefit, such as the right to life.

A negative right is a right to be left alone or to not be forced to do something, such as the right to refuse medical treatment.

The pro-choice side argues that a woman’s right to be left alone to make her own decision about her own life (a negative right) outweighs the pro-life side’s right to force their opinion on her life (a positive right). And a woman’s right not to be burdened with pregnancy (a negative right) outweighs the embryo’s or fetus’s rights to life (positive rights).


A surrogate is a woman who carries a fetus for another woman who is infertile or unable to carry a child. A surrogate mother is a woman who becomes pregnant by artificial insemination or by implantation of a fertilized egg created by in vitro fertilization for the purpose of carrying the fetus to term for another person or persons.

The growing surrogacy phenomenon in which women agree to have their bodies used to undergo a pregnancy and give birth to the resulting baby is becoming a major issue of the 21st century. Surrogacy is often referred to as “womb renting,” wherein a bodily service is provided for a fee. The practice is fraught with complexity and controversy surrounding the implications for women’s health and human rights generally. Society is only beginning to grapple with the issues that it raises. Increasingly, surrogates function as gestational carriers, carrying a pregnancy to delivery after having been implanted with an embryo. Since the surrogate usually has no biological relationship with the child, she has no legal claim, and the surrogate’s name does not appear on the birth certificate. In the United States, there is no national regulation of surrogacy, and its 50 states constitute a patchwork quilt of policies and laws, ranging from outright bans to no regulation.

A few of the many issues raised by surrogacy include—the rights of the children produced; the ethical and practical ramifications of the further commodification of women’s bodies; the exploitation of poor and low-income women desperate for money; the moral and ethical consequences of transforming a normal biological function of a woman’s body into a commercial transaction.20

Surrogacy raises fundamental issues regarding the nature of personhood, the attributes of human dignity, individual autonomy, and the perimeters of choice, the distinction between what can be made an object of commerce, what must remain in the domain of gift, and what ought not to be transferred at all. This includes the criticism that surrogacy leads to the commoditization of the child, breaks the bond between the mother and the child, it interferes with nature, and it leads to the exploitation of poor women in underdeveloped countries who sell their bodies for money.21

Surrogate maternity comes with a number of ethical problems. It is reported that this practice may induce such risks that the natural reproduction would be withdrawn and that the female body would become and sold as a reproductive box, the natural process would be medicalized, and some risks associated with the pregnancy and delivery would likely be experienced.

Considering the Emotional and Physical Health of the Surrogate

The emotional state and physical health of the surrogate are central in this situation. Most agencies that manage surrogacy require the surrogate to have one biological child. This woman should be physically and emotionally healthy and be of a certain age, usually between the ages of 21 and 39. The principles of justice, nonmaleficence, and beneficence demand that the surrogate be thoroughly screened and up to the task of bringing a baby to term and giving it up.

People who are opposed to surrogacy believe that there is too much stress placed on the surrogate and her family. Opponents believe that someone is usually hurt in this process and that person is usually the surrogate. Because pregnancy can take a physical and emotional toll on a woman, her health should be considered at all times. Postpartum depression is common after birth and giving the baby to another couple can exacerbate that condition. The surrogate should have a good support system in place to help her mentally and physically before, during, and after the pregnancy. If a surrogate isn’t biologically related to the potential parents, some compensation is expected. Some of the ethical issues of paying for a baby can be mitigated when the time and effort of the woman involved is considered.


If there are problems between the couple, who have contracted with the surrogate, all bets are off. There are cases where a couple has divorced while a surrogate is carrying their child and when surrogates have changed their minds and want to keep the baby. Not all surrogacy contracts cover all situations. Informed consent is crucial in this situation. All relevant medical information should be shared with the doctor managing the surrogacy before the pregnancy begins. The potential parents have primary responsibility for the baby after it is born. And the surrogate has primary responsibility for the fetus before it is born. You must tell all parties about all of the issues of this situation and all parties should agree to details.

Summarizing the above, let’s conclude with the thought of theologian Ramsey, who, in his book “The Patient as Person,” directs his attention to the question of respecting the patient as a person. He points to the fact that the knowledge and handling of the achievements of medical technology do not allow doctors and other medical professionals to ignore the personality of each patient, especially the seriously ill and especially the terminal, and to identify patients with the diseases they suffer from or the physical defects they have, insisting on the attitude that sees the patient as a person who has his own fundamental rights and freedom. The above is an old and new ethic of the relationship of medical and health professionals toward the patient, which realizes its full application and essence in the ethics of patient care.22


In 1998, Potter, the father of bioethics, said: “as I am entering the dusk of my life, I feel that bioethics has reached the threshold of a new time that goes beyond anything I could have imagined and developed. By entering the era of the third millennium, we are becoming increasingly aware of the dilemma that places before us, an exponential increase in knowledge without an increase in the wisdom required to manage it”.

Let us recall that Potter II always viewed bioethics as a new discipline, a “new medical ethics” which would combine knowledge and deliberation, a dynamic approach to the ongoing search of the human race for wisdom, that is, knowledge on how to use knowledge for human survival and improvement of the quality of life.

Medical ethics/bioethics is the science about the use of science.

It is the ethical supervisor of science. Without such a supervisor, science can escape human control and become “dangerous knowledge.” Bioethics should, therefore, represent a new scientific ethics that connects humility, responsibility, and ability; a science that is interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and global, and that exalts the meaning of humanity. It perceives the man’s well-being in the context of respect for nature, and as such, should become a kind of a “science of survival.”23


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