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Fertile Ground for Ethics Debate

With destruction of frozen embryos and abortion of healthy twin, many in Britain are challenging morality of medical advances.


LONDON — If the debate here is more low-key and more polite than on the American side of the Atlantic, it is no less virulent.

Britain too is wondering how to match medical marvels and moral principles. Has technology outdistanced ethics? Is current legislation too cavalier about the creation and destruction of life?

Two catalysts have sparked the national soul-searching.

First, 3,000 frozen human embryos were destroyed when the donors could not be traced at the end of the embryos' legal shelf life. Then, Britons learned that a doctor aborted one of two healthy fetuses in the womb of a woman who said she couldn't cope with twins.

Now there are demands for stricter legislation governing abortion and in vitro fertilization.

"The lesson is that the abortion issue here is far from settled. And, in terms of legal and medical questions, the practice of in vitro fertilization has added more problems to the field of medical ethics than it has solved," said Paul Tully, president of the 45,000-member Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child.

Britain is tougher on abortion than most European countries, and the organized antiabortion minority is nonviolent and nonconfrontational. But it is well-established and well-organized, and its voice is carrying further now, in a moment of national disquiet.

"Ethically, I would argue that we have lost our way. In freezing embryos, we crossed an ethical threshold where we should have held back. We have wandered into moral blind alleys and can't find our way out," Tully said.

The "orphan" embryos, mourned in a candlelight vigil by the antiabortion group Life, were thawed under a 1990 law requiring that unclaimed frozen embryos be destroyed after five years. An additional 60,000 frozen embryos whose donors wish to have them maintained may remain indefinitely at fertility clinics.

The one-twin abortion was conducted on a 28-year-old unmarried mother of one under a 1967 national law that allows termination of a pregnancy in the first 24 weeks if two doctors agree that the pregnancy endangers the mother's mental or physical health.

The operation for the unidentified, economically strapped woman occurred several weeks ago but became known only after days of furor this week while activists sought an injunction to stop the abortion and news coverage churned up financial offers for the mother.

Citing the case, critics say that many doctors practice abortion on demand and that too many abortions occur for social reasons. Jill Knight of the ruling Conservative Party is among lawmakers seeking tougher abortion legislation. Framers of the 1967 law, she said, "did not intend that it should be used simply when the woman did not want the child. There had to be a good reason."

The government sees no need to change the current law, under which about 160,000 abortions are performed yearly.

"People opposed to all abortion are prepared to use highly unusual and marginal cases to convince others to abolish abortion. The law requires two doctors to agree. It does not need changing," said David Steel, the Liberal Democrat who wrote the 1967 legislation. Most doctors, Steel said, agree to an abortion "as the lesser of two evils."


In the one-twin case, the mother reportedly said that, if one fetus couldn't be terminated, she wanted both aborted. "Better to leave one baby alive than to lose two," said Phillip Bennett, a 37-year-old obstetrician at the London hospital where the operation was performed.

Kyprianos Nicolaides, a professor of fetal medicine at King's College and a colleague of Bennett, said the case crystallizes concerns among doctors that there's been little time to weigh the side effects of rapid expansion in fertility treatment and fetal medicine.

"Anybody with any degree of sensibility is constantly tortured by the ethical issues," he said. "Every day we deal with life and death. At the end of the day a doctor must take a decision. That can be very, very lonely."

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