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Law Med Health Care. 1982 Jun;10(3):129-34.

Human life symposium: a synopsis and critique.



A brief summary of the major issues raised by each address during the Human Life Symposium is presented and critiqued by the author. Multidisciplinary perspectives were solicited concerning the possibility of ascribing personhood status to a fetus. Several speakers addressed the issue of the ability of science to define "person." Science may be able to define stages in an organism's development, but cannot decide what rights and obligations should be accrued at any given stage. In philosophy, a single concept of person does not exist, however science, according to 1 speaker, should be able to develop a definition. The author points out that scientific definitions are generally utilitarian and are molded to fit their eventual purpose and questions the role of science in solving the abortion debate in the US. Waste in the reproductive process was reviewed in terms of the number of ova, sperm, fertilized ova, and implanted embryos that nature prohibits from attaining full reproductive potential as a viable pregnancy. Medical technology has allowed many parents to selectively have offspring free of genetic disease who would not have opted to conceive or continue a pregnancy. Medical advances in fetal treatment and surgery raise new ethical dilemmas including the right of the mother to not consent to treatment or in the case of multiple pregnancy, the right of other fetuses not to be jeopardized to save the life of one fetus. The expected impact of bestowing personhood on a fetus would be seen in the abolition of screening programs, of parents' rights to bear only healthy children, in the increased prevalence of children with abnormalities, in the dilemma which would arise in providing necessary treatment to a woman that would endanger the fetus, in the banning of contraceptives which act after fertilization, and in the incidence of illegal abortion. Attempts to define life in terms of legally accepted definitions of death, i.e., loss of capacity and future potential of brain function, are irrelevant because in a fetus, the potential exists before the capacity. Historically, the legal definition of personhood has been pragmatically applied and varies with the intent of different laws. 1 speaker suggests that the abortion issues will not be resolved by defining personhood but through compromise of the competing social values. The history of abortion legislation is reviewed and it is suggested that the consequences sought from abortion law be determined and then the law be written to achieve those consequences. The severity of the ramifications of the passage of a human life bill were presented from both ends of the continuum. Aside from confusion and much litigation, 1 speaker suggested that the impact would be limited because the ban on abortions would need to be decided in each state and the legal conflict between 2 persons (mother and fetus) could be resolved using the legal analogy that one has no duty to rescue a stranger in distress. Another speaker felt the impact would be enormous, effecting at least 10 different areas of the law. A geographic and historic comparison of abortion laws concluded that laws were merely neutral vehicles to express cultural and ethical values. The theory of utilitarianism and the role of religious attitudes were discussed. The development of new technology in the field of genetics is expected to raise additional issues when more genetic diseases are treatable and when termination of a pregnancy is no longer synonymous with the death of a fetus.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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