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A Scottish researcher’s response
  1. H McHaffie
  1. 12 Mayburn Terrace, Loanhead, Midlothian, UK;

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    In ethical debate the questions often matter more than the answers. By raising questions about the anomalies in clinical practice concerning the moral status of the fetus, Boyle et al are contributing to the debate.

    There can be no starker reminder of the legal anomaly around fetal/infant rights than the hospital which deals simultaneously with abortions and intensive care of neonates. In the course of my own clinical practice I have recoiled from the horror of late abortions being whisked to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and struggled with the ethical complexities of decision making for infants born at the edge of viability. But many years of detailed researching of the lived experiences of both staff and parents in relation to limitation of treatment,1,2 lead me to the conclusion that to focus discussion on fetal/infant rights is unhelpful. Theoretically the issues may well be conceptualised in this way, but the reality is very different.

    It is true that a mother has the right to request termination of her pregnancy at a stage where there is at least some possibility of a viable fetus (although in practice this rarely happens). It is also true that the rights of the fetus may only be realised once it has passed through the birth canal and established itself as a separate individual. A sharp divide at 24 weeks seems illogical, and indeed the whole notion of viability is something of a legal fiction. But in reality things are not as confrontational or as irreconcilable as this paper seems to suggest. Viewed from the perspective of the doctors, nurses, and parents at the coalface of NICU, talk of the child’s rights and interests suddenly superseding those of the parents is a distortion; and a picture of arbitrary conflicting reactions on the two …

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