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The Ethics Of Prolonging Life In Foetuses And The Newborn

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics today announced a new Working Party to consider issues surrounding the prolonging of life in foetuses and the newborn.

In recent decades there have been great improvements in the care of very premature and critically ill babies. Knowledge about pregnancy and the foetus has also increased, even allowing some treatment to take place while the foetus is still in the womb. We are able to sustain the life of even some extremely premature babies.

However, it remains difficult to make accurate predictions for the quality of life that babies born at this very young age will be able to achieve. Some technological interventions have meant that the lives of critically ill babies can be prolonged when there is a small chance of recovery or survival in the longer term. In some children, premature delivery, congenital problems or complications at birth may result in disability, the extent of which is difficult to predict.

The Working Party will review the guidance on treatment for these babies and current practice in neonatal units. Members will also examine scientific advances and potential developments in this area of medicine. The focus of discussion will be the ethical, social, legal and economic issues involved in making very difficult decisions regarding treatment.

The range of expertise within the Working Party will ensure that the roles of the family, medical professionals and the wider population will be considered.

"This Working Party will cover some very sensitive issues which have a great effect on people's lives. We will be discussing not only how decisions are made, but also the longer term consequences of these decisions," said Chair, Professor Margaret Brazier of the Manchester University School of Law.

The Working Party will meet over the next 18 months, and will hold a series of fact-finding meetings. Members of the public, professionals and organisations will be invited to contribute to a public consultation, which will be conducted in the spring of 2005. The Council expects to publish a Report on its findings and recommendations in autumn 2006.

Snell Communications Ltd. October 2004.

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