From the dead to the unborn: Is there an ethical duty to save life?

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In this paper I examine the question whether physicians have a legal and ethical duty to sustain pregnancies of women who die during the first or second trimester by the delivery of their fetuses. One ground for such a duty, on which I am focusing, is the duty of "special relationship" between the mother and the fetus. In my paper, I claim that the special relations the pregnant woman and the fetus have do provide such a moral duty. This moral duty derives from the special and intimate relationship between the mother and the fetus, which has two considerations that support it: the uniqueness of the fetus, and the mother's understanding and acknowledgement of such uniqueness. However, I argue that when the mother is dead, the nature of the relationship changes, as she is no more aware of her fetus and her relationship with it. Thus, the ethical duty of the mother to save her fetus' life should be declined upon the end of the relationship between the mother and her fetus with the mother's death. I support my argument by analyzing the special relationship between the mother and the fetus from four related ethical theories: ethics of relationships, responsibilities to society, ethics of families, and the ethics of care. By discussing these ethical theories, I show how responsibility to society in general, and to social entities, like families, in particular, constitute a moral duty towards the fetus, which, as aforesaid, no longer exists upon the pregnant woman's death. In addition to being social entities I further show how the intrinsic values of families play an important role in forming such a moral duty. Nevertheless, I argue that such an instrumental duty that enables the establishment of families no more exists as the pregnant woman is no more socially and morally part of the family she belonged to while alive. I strengthen my argument by applying ethics of care, and by analyzing the practical conclusion I arrived at from a religious perspective.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)567-585
Number of pages19
JournalMedicine and Law
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Brain-death
  • Death
  • Duty
  • Ethical
  • Ethics for families
  • Ethics of care
  • Ethics of relationship
  • Fetus
  • Maternal-fetal relationship
  • Pregnancy
  • Society

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Law


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