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Ethics briefings
  1. Martin Davies,
  2. Sophie Brannan,
  3. Eleanor Chrispin,
  4. Samuel Mason,
  5. Rebecca Mussell,
  6. Julian Sheather,
  7. Ann Sommerville
  1. Correspondence to Mr Martin Davies, British Medical Association, BMA House, Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9JP, UK; mdavies{at}

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Fetal rights, human rights and public health

Proponents of fetal rights argue that, from the moment of conception, a fetus has significant human rights. There are degrees of opinion, however, about the scope of those rights, with some arguing that, in certain circumstances, such as where the conception is the result of rape, the mother's rights predominate. Others argue that the fetus' rights are absolute and should override the woman's right to life and health so that pregnancies cannot be terminated, even to save women's lives. Various countries explicitly or implicitly recognise the status of the fetus as a separate person with varying degrees of rights. For example, the Irish Constitution recognises the ‘right to life of the unborn’ (the so-called ‘pro-life’ or Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland became law in October 1983) and the 2004 US Unborn Victims of Violence Act views violence against a pregnant woman as a crime against two people, one of whom is the child in utero. The 1969 American Convention on Human Rights (also known as the ‘Pact of San José, Costa Rica’) has been signed by most Latin American countries and recognises full human rights as applying from conception. In the UK, the fetus has no legal rights but it is widely agreed that the closer a fetus is to being capable of independent existence outside the womb, the greater the moral obligations owed to it. This is reflected in the abortion law only permitting termination of a pregnancy at the later stages in restricted circumstances.

In Brazil, the issue of fetal rights was highlighted in May 2010 when a Bill was put forward which aimed to give the fetus priority in law and to make illegal any act or omission that could have a negative impact on it. The bill proposes that the family, society and the …

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