Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, the first of whose mandates was to review and report on research involving living fetuses. The result was a report, Research on the Fetus. Among its recommendations were the following: nontherapeutic research on the pregnant woman or on the fetus in utero may be conducted or supported, provided it will impose minimal or no risk to the fetus, the woman's informed consent has been obtained, and the father has not objected (Research on the Fetus, pp. 73–76).
Several key concepts are included in this recommendation. The first is nontherapeutic research, that is, research that does not benefit the research subject, in this case, either the pregnant woman or the fetus. Placing restrictions on the use of pregnant women in nontherapeutic research limits their freedom of choice, but it cannot be said to harm them as individuals. Women taken as a class may be harmed by the exclusion of women from clinical trials. Indeed, such exclusion is likely to affect adversely society as a whole, as important knowledge that might have been acquired may not be gained. The situation is quite different for therapeutic research, to which I will return shortly.
The next key concept is that of risk to the fetus. The National Commission required that the risk to the fetus from the research be minimal or nonexistent. It maintained that all fetuses should be protected from potentially harmful research, regardless of whether they were going to be aborted or going to be born: ". . . the same principles apply whether or not abortion is contemplated; in both cases, only minimal risk is acceptable" (Research on the Fetus, p. 66). This requirement was referred to as "the principle of equality."
I disagree. In my view, because of the difference between children and early-gestation fetuses, it is crucially important whether the woman is going to abort or going to term. Early-gestation fetuses are not sentient or conscious or aware of anything. No matter what is done to them, they feel nothing. Nonsentient fetuses cannot be harmed in the way that sentient beings can be harmed; that is, they can't be hurt or made to suffer. Treatment that would cause a sentient being to experience pain is not necessarily harmful to nonsentient fetuses.
However, pain isn't the only way in which a being can be harmed. What if a fetus is exposed to substances that prevent it from developing normally, such as the rubella virus, thalidomide, alcohol, and so forth. Here, however, the harm is not to the fetus, but to the born child. It is the child who must go through life deaf and mentally retarded when the fetus has been harmed by prenatal exposure to rubella. It is the child who must go through life without limbs when the fetus has been harmed by thalidomide. It is the child who must go through life with learning disabilities when the fetus has been harmed by prenatal exposure to alcohol. If the woman aborts in the first trimester, before the fetus becomes sentient or conscious, there is no one who can be harmed. That is why a woman who plans to abort has only her own health to consider regarding drinking or