Reproduction and ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L083-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 16, 2021, from

2. Embryonic and foetal research

The debate about the status of the foetus assumed prominence in the days when abortion came to be seen as an issue of women’s rights, and this was well before we had acquired the technique of fertilizing extracted ova in vitro, or discovered that foetal brain tissue might help adult human beings suffering from Parkinson’s disease, or started on the ‘genome project’ (see Genetics and ethics §1). The gradualist or moderate positions were, perhaps, gaining ground, as the views that underpinned the legislation governing abortion in many Western countries, wherein increasingly ‘serious’ reasons for abortion are required as the pregnancy develops but abortion ‘on demand’ is allowed in the first trimester, until the new questions about the treatment of first-trimester-age foetuses (or embryos) hit the headlines, and people started manifesting qualms. In fact, research on quite well-developed – even viable – foetuses had been going on, but few people knew about it, and, in many countries, there was no legislation that covered it. Now there is, but the substantial restrictions laid down seem to fit badly with the policies which are fairly ‘liberal’ about first trimester abortions. If the moral status of a ten-week-old foetus is so minimal that abortion ‘on demand’ is morally permissible, why do we insist on laws restricting the use of even two- or three-day-old embryos for research? In particular, why is it always assumed (as it is) that embryos may only be used as a last resort (when, that is, no other animals can be used to further the research), a restriction that those concerned about our exploitation of other animals rightly point out calls for some justification (see Animals and ethics).

In fact, the debates about these issues tend to dodge questions about morality and centre instead around legislation where considerations of the general consequences of allowing or forbidding certain practices become obviously relevant. Hence prima facie inconsistent positions which combine liberal abortion legislation with very restrictive legislation on the use of embryos and foetuses may be defended on the grounds that, as things are at the moment, liberal abortion legislation is a necessary evil, the only available way of avoiding desperate women resorting to backstreet abortionists or suffering the emotional and economic hardship of having babies they did not want and could not afford. However, this is hardly a defence that conservatives about the moral status of the foetus can employ; nor does it tend to recommend itself to those who defend ‘a woman’s right to choose’.

Citing this article:
Hursthouse, Rosalind. Embryonic and foetal research. Reproduction and ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L083-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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