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N M Ford. Blackwell, 2002, US$59.95 (hbk), US$24.95 (pbk), pp 256. ISBN 0631234926
In The Prenatal Person: Ethics from Conception to Birth Norman Ford has provided an important, thoughtful, accessible account of a natural law view of early human life. Ford has written an engaging book that puts this fundamental moral position about persons and prenatal life in conversation with critics of the position, common morality, the Christian tradition, and many of the complex clinical problems of contemporary medicine. The book is a timely contribution to bioethics and many of the controversies surrounding embryonic stem cell and cloning research. It takes up one of the most important positions in these debates and gives a clear, concise development of the natural law tradition. Ford very clearly lays out a natural law position on early human life and then draws out the implications of that position for many current and important issues in bioethics. He writes with clarity as he works through the foundational issues to the complex clinical and research questions.
Of course there are many different views of the issues surrounding early human life. The moral controversies about early human life are further complicated by the fact that there are several different methodologies deployed in framing these views. Ford is mindful of these different audiences and conversation partners as he develops the book. He pays careful attention to other views.
In the first chapter he engages in an explanation of fundamental moral questions. He engages many of the issues raised by Peter Singer and utilitarian thinkers. Ford also engages contemporary understandings of the person that are part of Singer’s work and which are often very much a part of discussions in contemporary bioethics even when they are not explicitly articulated. Ford sets the Singer positions in conversation with a traditional view of morality and traditional conceptions of the person. He examines Singer’s stance on “interests” as the defining characteristic of the moral community. Ford is convinced, however, and argues accordingly, that the focus on interests alone leads to a subjective view of the person. While the subjective view is important, Ford argues that ethics also needs an objective approach which is the foundation of the person’s subjectivity and capacity as a moral agent.
In contrast Ford argues that the traditional concept of the person and traditional morality offer a more comprehensive view of morality and the person. The human nature view of the person also provides a way to talk about early human life—especially prenatal life—in the language of persons. Ford then goes on to show how the Jewish and Christian Scriptures contain a number of themes that are important to issues of morality and medicine.
In the third chapter, he describes the basic ethical principles for health care that follow from the foundational position he has laid out. In doing so he tries to set out these principles from both philosophical and theological perspectives. Having set out a framework in the natural law tradition, Ford then moves to particular issues about prenatal human life. In so doing he enters a conversation with many of the most difficult issues in contemporary medicine and health care.
In the chapters that follow Ford moves from the foundations to examine many of the issues surrounding prenatal human life. The human embryo, the pregnant woman and the fetus, assisted reproduction technologies, and prenatal screening are all explored. Ford thoughtfully examines some issues surrounding newborns.
The book provides an in depth, clear examination of a particular moral position that has been, and remains, important to many people in bioethics and the practice of medicine. The book is an excellent examination of this tradition of thought and applies that tradition well to many difficult and contentious issues. It is also to be recommended as an attempt to put the natural law tradition in dialogue with other key lines of thought in contemporary bioethics. It is well written, insightful, and touches on some of the most controversial issues in the field. Even if one disagrees with the arguments and the foundational position, it is a book that ought to be part of the ongoing debates around these issues.
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