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REVIEW ARTICLE
Year : 2015  |  Volume : 18  |  Issue : 7  |  Page : 31-39

Ethical and legal dilemmas around termination of pregnancy for severe fetal anomalies: A review of two African neonates presenting with ventriculomegaly and holoprosencephaly


1 Programme of Bio and Research Ethics and Medical Law, School of Nursing and Public Health and Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, College of Health Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
2 Clinical Neonatology Unit, R.K. Khan Hospital, Durban and Department of Paediatrics, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

Correspondence Address:
S C Chima
Programme of Bio and Research Ethics and Medical Law, School of Nursing and Public Health and Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, College of Health Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban
South Africa
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


DOI: 10.4103/1119-3077.170820

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Termination of pregnancy (TOP) or feticide for severe fetal anomalies is ethically and morally challenging and maybe considered illegal in countries with restrictive abortion laws. While diagnostic modalities such as fetal ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging, and genetic screening have improved prenatal diagnosis, these technologies remain scarce in many African countries making diagnosis and counseling regarding TOP difficult. Ethical dilemmas such as women's autonomy rights may conflict with fetus' right to personhood, and doctor's moral obligations to society. In liberal jurisdictions, previable fetuses may not have legal rights of personhood; therefore, appropriate action would be to respect pregnant women's decisions regarding TOP. However, in countries with restrictive abortion laws the fetus maybe imbued with the right of personhood at conception, making TOP illegal and exposing doctors and patients to potential criminal prosecution. Birth of a severely disabled baby with independent legal rights creates further conflicts between parents and clinicians complicating healthcare decision-making. Irrespective of the maternal decision to accept or refuse TOP, the psychological and emotional impact of an impaired fetus or neonate, often lead to moral distress and posttraumatic stress reactions in parents. Doctors have legal and ethical obligations to provide an accurate antenatal diagnosis with full disclosure to enable informed decision making. Failure to provide timely or accurate diagnosis may lead to allegations of negligence with potential liability for "wrongful birth" or "wrongful life" following birth of severely disabled babies. Mismanagement of such cases also causes misuse of scarce healthcare resources in resource-poor countries. This paper describes ethical challenges in clinical management of two neonates born following declined and failed feticide for severe central nervous system anomalies with a critical appraisal of the relevant literature.


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