‘Bioethics’: The Case of the Fetus

Research on the Fetus: The Report of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research

US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Federal Register
with a separately published Appendix, DHEW Publication No. (OS) 76-128

The Ethics of Fetal Research

by Paul Ramsey
Yale University Press, 104 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Few fields of study have grown faster than that which has come to be called—by Americans, anyway—“bioethics.” Bioethics is the study of ethical problems raised by the biological and medical sciences. It is, at least in part, the proliferation of new techniques in these sciences that has led to the growth of bioethics.

Some of the ethical problems arise directly from medical practice: if a severely and hopelessly retarded infant in a state institution contracts pneumonia, should efforts be made to save him? If the heart of a potential organ donor is still beating, though his brain is effectively dead, and further delay will imperil the life of the would-be recipient of the organ, may the organ be removed?

Other contentious issues are connected with research: should we try to gain knowledge that has potentially dangerous misuses, for instance, knowledge about genetic engineering and modifying behavior? Is it ever permissible to conduct research on human beings without their consent?

A third set of issues confronts administrators: should a hospital use its limited funds to buy an artificial kidney machine, thus saving the lives of a small number of identifiable persons, or should it rather set up a free screening service for cervical cancer, which the available statistics tell us will save more lives in the long run?

With so many pressing problems to discuss, it is not surprising that bioethics is growing. Conferences, workshops, and summer schools abound. The University of California now offers an MA in bioethics. An Encyclopedia of Bioethics is scheduled to appear later this year. 1 The Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences, founded in 1969 at Hastings-on-Hudson, now has an annual budget of close to one million dollars, 80 percent of which comes from government and foundation grants; it publishes the bimonthly Hastings Center Report, and conducts both research and teaching programs.

Yet bioethics is still in its infancy, and its rich diet of foundation grants and government sponsorship has made it a flabby infant rather than a tough adolescent. The recent debate about research on the human fetus provides an illustration of the weaknesses that characterize much of the work in the field.

Although some research on human fetuses had been done prior to the legalization of abortion, the 1973 Supreme Court decision striking down anti-abortion laws brought the issue to the surface. Since 1973 there has been a steady stream of women coming to hospitals for abortions, and it did not take researchers long to realize the possibilities inherent in this situation.

Assume that you have developed a new drug, known to be safe for adults but untested for its effects on the fetus if taken by a pregnant woman. To test the drug on pregnant animals would not give reliable information about humans, since there are variations in drug susceptibility between different species, as the thalidomide case tragically showed. To test the drug on normal pregnant women and then check for deformities when they give birth is out…

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