[Year:2023] [Month:January-March] [Volume:17] [Number:1] [Pages:6] [Pages No:54 - 59]
The moral, legal, and medical obligations to the fetus create a large number of serious legal and medical questions. The progressively increasing recognition of fetal rights in the field of law, such as tort, property, insurance, criminal procedure, and civil rights, raises questions that are related to the autonomy of the mother and the fetus.
During the last 40 years, the technology of primitive embryonic stem cells has developed so much that in the near future, it seems very likely many incurable and devastating diseases that plague humanity will be controlled by employing therapies with such cells.
An important, indeed, legal question is whether the ex utero ovum at the time of fertilization is considered a human being because, in this manner, it acquires the status of a natural person with all the legal rights that derive from it. According to theological and legal views, a human being deserves respect as a natural person from the very first moment of existence.
Thus, a question appeared with particular acuteness—“when does human life begin?” A question that has occupied philosophers, theologians, and other intellectuals for many centuries.
Today, the synthesis of scientific data, philosophical hypotheses, and problems of humanity has become a pressing necessity so that we can deal with the moral rights and social problems that come from the intervention of man in the various stages of life. The appropriate answer to the question, “when does human life begin?” and “how is human life defined?” is very perplexing. Today, dilemmas concerning the respect of human life from birth to death involve not only biology and medicine but also other sciences, such as philosophy, theology, psychology, sociology, legal, and political sciences, which have approached this issue from different points of view. There is a fine line between the responsibilities of science and those of metaphysics, and it seems that it depends on the philosophical principles of each of us.
The concept of ethics in medical practice is older than this science itself, while for centuries, it remains the doctor's obligation to protect his patient's interests. More specifically, those interests which are related to patient's health are the avoidance of premature death, the cure or treatment of a disease, injury, or disability, and the avoidance of unnecessary physical and mental pain. All these are not just subjective findings but must be accompanied by a careful clinical evaluation by the attending physician for the sole purpose of defining which approach will be most beneficial to the patient, among those available. In the texts of Hippocrates, the meaning of “benefit or not to harm,” while in the Latin literature, the primum non nocere (first do no harm) dominates.
The concept of the fetus as a patient has recently emerged as a major topic in perinatal medicine because when the fetus is treated as an independent patient, it is recommended to apply directed treatment, that is, a method of treatment that will benefit the fetus. When the fetus is not treated as a patient, a nondirected treatment could be acceptable and ethically satisfactory.
The concept of the fetus as a patient essentially depends on various factors. One such factor is sustainability, which should be perceived with biological and technological parameters. When the embryo is viable, that is, when it has attained the maturity to be able to enter the neonatal period, with or without the assistance of technological support, or when it is presented to the doctor, then this fetus is considered a patient.
The way one perceives fetal legal rights depends, to a large extent, on the degree of moral meaning which is attributed to the various stages of human development—fertilization, implantation, formation, development, functional and anatomical maturation, sensation, and sustainability. According to a specific legal point of view (by Jeremy Bentham) “rights do not depend on the ability to think but on the ability to feel.” But when does the fetus acquires the ability to think or feel? There is no clear answer here.
The genetic machine is like an atomic bomb, with the need for special care. As the capabilities of this technology increase, more prudence and maturity are required for its use. However, history teaches that each major step in modern biotechnology initially causes moral vertigo, which fortunately resolves quickly.
I close with the hope that most, if not all, understand the reflection arising from the acceptance of the notion that the embryo may have rights.