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CMAJ. 1997 Jun 15;156(12):1729-32.

Bioethics for clinicians: 12. Ethical dilemmas that arise in the care of pregnant women: rethinking "maternal-fetal conflicts".

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  • 1Office of Medical Bioethics, Faculty of Medicine, University of Calgary, Alta.


When a pregnant woman makes a decision or acts in a manner that may be detrimental to the health and well-being of her fetus, her physician may be faced with an ethical dilemma. Is the physician's primary duty to respect the woman's autonomy, or to promote behaviour that may be in the best interest of the fetus? The controversial concept of "fetal rights" or the "fetus as a patient" contributes to the notion that the pregnant woman and her fetus are potential adversaries. However, Canadian law has upheld women's right to life, liberty and security of the person and has not recognized fetal rights. If a woman is competent and refuses medical advice, her decision must be respected even if the physician believes that her fetus will suffer as a result. Coercion of the woman is not permissible no matter what appears to be in the best interest of the fetus.

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