• informed consent;
  • informed refusal;
  • rights;
  • duties


The principle of informed refusal poses a specific problem when it is invoked by a pregnant woman who, in spite of having accepted her pregnancy, refuses the diagnostic and/or therapeutic measures that would ensure the well-being of her endangered fetus. Guidelines issued by professional bodies in the developed world are conflicting: either they allow autonomy and informed consent to be overruled to the benefit of the fetus, or they recommend the full respect of these principles. A number of medical ethicists advocate the overruling of alleged irrational or unreasonable refusal for the benefit of the fetus. The present essay supports the view of fetal rights to health and to life based on the principle that an ‘accepted’ fetus is a ‘third person’. In developing countries, however, the implementation of the latter principle is likely to be in conflict with a ‘communitarian’ perception of the individual – in this case, the pregnant woman. Within the scope of the limitations to the right to autonomy of J.S. Mill's ‘harm principle’, the South African Patients’ Charter makes provision for informed refusal. The fact that, in practice, it is not implemented illustrates the well-known difficulty of applying Western bioethical principles in real life in the developing world.