Can ethics survive the onslaught of science?

Michael Lupton*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


The issue on which I will attempt to cast some light is certainly not novel. It has been ongoing for many years but the pace of scientific progress is gathering and the retreat of ethical barriers is relentless. I will illustrate my thesis by using examples of legal decisions from the realm of assisted human procreation and the posthumous conception of children from the sperm of deceased fathers e.g., the cases of Diane Blood, Parpalaix and Nikolas Coltan Evans. I will also highlight the recent case of Ashley X, a nine year old girl whose parents authorised radical medical treatment to arrest her development. I will argue that the law is being driven to roll back the ethical standards derived from our legacy of Natural Law by the imperatives of human rights e.g., the right to found a family, and the quest for patient autonomy. These are both admirable goals but fulfilling these goals comes at a cost to cherished ethical values e.g., that children are conceived by living fathers and that indulging the personal desires of every individual cannot forever be encompassed. As our legislators and courts chip away at our core network of ethical values, are they replacing them with equivalent values or do their decisions amount to a hollowing out of the core ethical values e.g., Thou shalt not kill and that human life is sacrosanct? Yet abortion is legal in many countries as is euthanasia. Paradoxically there is legislative protection for embryos by limiting experimentation on these clusters of cells. How do you construct a rational ethical framework with such blatant legal inconsistencies in the protection of human life? The sanctity of human life constitutes one of the fundamental pillars of ethical values which, in turn, support much more of the structure of ethics. Is a society that permits freezing the development of a nine year old child not a society whose ethics are so compromised that it is doomed to defend an ever diminishing mass of ethical values? Is there a core of ethics which is sacrosanct or is every ethical frontier fair game for invasion? Are the Ethics Committees, which approve and monitor research in the field of bioethics in Universities, Hospitals and laboratories failing in their duty as gatekeepers? They are after all the first line of defence for the survival of crucial ethical values. Can we continue to indulge the whims and needs of every individual under the guise of human rights or patient autonomy? Can a civilised society endure as such with an ever diminishing mass of ethical values?

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)251-275
Number of pages25
JournalMedicine and Law
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2013


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