New book by UK ethicist takes long, hard look at pregnancy and its meaning

"The Ethics of Pregnancy, Abortion and Childbirth" (Routledge), by Dr Helen Watt, offers reasoned and sensitive analysis of the many issues surrounding conception, fertility, pregnancy and abortion.

I have heard Dr Helen Watt, who is Senior Research Fellow (and former Director) of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford, address subjects such as fertility and IVF in lectures around the UK and was keen to see how she treated the moral complexities surrounding pregnancy in her latest book. I was not disappointed by this characteristically calm, in-depth analysis of the many issues surrounding conception, fertility, pregnancy and abortion. Watt has particular expertise in the field of ART (assisted reproductive technology) which is reflected in the focus she gives to IVF, surrogacy and the associated problems of fetal reduction and anonymous donor conception, to name just a few of the many issues covered in the book. 

Watt’s coolly probing tone will not be to everyone’s taste but it provides a much-needed antidote to the highly emotive and often openly hateful rhetoric surrounding the abortion debate in both the United States and Europe today. The book is more than a series of well-constructed arguments, however, and the author is not lacking in awareness of the painful human experiences at the heart of so many ethical dilemmas surrounding pregnancy and fertility. She deals sensitively and humanely with the distress caused to women by unexplained infertility, the trauma of rape, and the sense of betrayal and confusion felt by many children of anonymous donors. The enquiring reader can choose no steadier or more learned guide through the moral minefield of modern-day pregnancy than Helen Watt.

The book looks at a number of different approaches to pregnancy, such as the Uni-Personal and the Spousal Pregnancy, but what is perhaps most impressive about the book (more even than the extraordinary scientific knowledge Watt displays throughout the text), is the book’s exploration of subjects that are seldom afforded proper scrutiny by thinkers on either side of the debate. For example, she addresses the question of why we believe in a right to mother. Not to be a mother, but simply the right to mother the child to whom one has given birth. Society regards it as a self-evident truth that a woman should have certain claims over the child she has brought into the world and we are naturally appalled if a baby is taken from a mother without grave reason. If the relationship between mother and baby within pregnancy is not singularly important, however, why should a woman have a right to nurture and raise her child? 

The book charts a moderate course between the extremes of the debate, warning against not just the persistent dehumanising of the unborn child by the abortion movement but the tendency to be so focused upon the unborn child as to forget the presence of the pregnant woman “as if it were a free-floating subject in some non-personal, subhuman environment” (p 35). The inherent value and rights of both mother and baby are carefully considered throughout the book.     

My one major objection to this remarkable work is one over which the author (sadly) had no control and that is the ludicrously inflated price for a slim volume. I would strongly recommend buying this book on Kindle which works out at less than half the retail price for a hardback. The high cost is regrettable as it will undoubtedly deter some from buying the book, which should have a place on the shelf of anyone with an interest in the beginnings of life, regardless of their political and ethical persuasions.

The Ethics of Pregnancy, Abortion and Childbirth: Exploring Moral Choices in Childbearing (Routledge Annals of Bioethics)
by Helen Watt
Routledge, 2016
Hardcover, 168 pages


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About Fiorella Nash 35 Articles
Fiorella Nash is a researcher and writer for the London-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and has over ten years' experience researching life issues from a feminist perspective. She makes regular appearances at both national and international conferences and has appeared on radio and in print discussing issues such as abortion, gendercide, maternal health and commercial surrogacy. She is the author of The Abolition of Woman: How Radical Feminism Is Betraying Women (Ignatius Press, 2018), and is also an award-winning novelist, having published numerous books and short stories under the nom-de-plume Fiorella De Maria.