Doctors and ethicists say that unborn babies have “moral value,” and predict that babies in late stages of gestation will be given legal rights in Canada.

A panel of medical, legal and ethics experts discussed the “ethical dilemmas” raised by today’s medical advances at the September convention of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The case under discussion was that of a woman, 32 weeks pregnant, dying of lung cancer, who refused to have her baby delivered surgically while she was alive.  Her husband said he wanted the baby to die with its mother because he could not care for a child.

The obstetrician said he could not “in good conscience” honour the father’s instructions and delivered a live baby within five minutes of the mother’s death.

Dr. John Dosseter, professor of medicine at the University of Alberta, said that the dilemma for doctors raised by such cases is whether or not delivering babies without parental consent is legal.  “At 32 to 36 weeks, a fetus is virtually the same as a newborn,” he said.

“After death, the husband, as next of kin, has rights of disposal of his wife’s body.  But he did not own her body,” Dr. Dusseter told the Toronto Star, “Because the live fetus was removed after death, it was a form of autopsy and could not be vetoes by the father.”

He said also that the advances in fetal surgery have raised the question of whether an independent guardian should be appointed to ensure the interests of the unborn are protected.

John Williams, of the Centre for Bioethics at the University of Montreal, noted that an unborn child has “moral value” and suggested that the clash between moral and legal rights needs to be resolved.

Canadian law does not recognize the unborn child as a person in the legal sense.  Although there have been several successful court cases giving the unborn child protection under the law when the mother has a history of drug or alcohol abuse.