Herring JOxford: Oxford University Press; 2010

Paton v BPAS. 1979;

St George's Healthcare NHS Trust v SR v Collins and others. 1998;

Vo v France. 2004;

The legal status of the fetus

02 June 2017
Volume 25 · Issue 6


The legal status of a fetus is a complex issue, both in ethics and law. Sophie Windsor considers the moral and legal dilemmas that may arise when detemining the rights of a fetus

The legal status of the fetus is one of the most controversial topics in medical ethics and law, and invokes a ‘tug of war’ between maternal autonomy and fetal claims. Although English law is quite clear that the fetus has no legal rights, it does not equate to ‘nothing’ (St George's Healthcare NHS Trust v SR v. Collins and others [1998]). This ‘tug of war’ is complicated not only by moral dilemmas that are encountered, but also the by the legal difficulties in deciding what, if any, protection the fetus has.

One of the first cases to discuss this was Paton v BPAS [1979], in which a husband sought to prevent his wife having an abortion. The court was clear that:

‘The fetus cannot […] have any rights of its own at least until it is born and has separate existence from the mother.’

The term ‘separate existence’ is an interesting one, as arguably the fetus is not separated from its mother until the umbilical cord is cut. Could it be possible for the fetus to be harmed, up until the moment the cord is cut?

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