Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre

Project Items

Ordinary Ethics


This project has considered such issues as:

This approach involves paying closer attention to uncovering the moral values on which public attitudes are based and whether differences between groups in approach or values contribute to mutual misunderstanding.

A substantial literature by philosophers and policymakers on the ethical aspects of the 'new genetics' already existed at this time. However, research into the moral approaches of non-professionals (lay people) was much less extensive. The work that exists is generally restricted to:

Project update

This was a fascinating project, covering the intersection between philosophy, psychology, sociology and human genetics. We have found that lay people are almost universally opposed to sex selection. This is in striking contrast to the libertarian consensus that dominates the bioethics literature.

Furthermore, lay people can give coherent and sophisticated arguments to support their views. Researcher Dr Jackie Leach Scully started work in September 2002, and conducted 10 focus groups plus follow up interviews, and eight interviews with medical professionals.

The topic chosen for moral evaluation was prenatal sex selection, which is also the subject of current regulatory debate and consultation. The groups were presented with scenarios based on prenatal sex selection, particularly using preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD).

Participants were asked whether they thought prenatal sex selection was right or wrong, or whether they didn't know. In the course of the focus group participants explored their reasoning behind their opinions, sometimes supporting and sometimes challenging each other's conclusions.

In follow-up interviews with particularly informative participants, their moral values and processes were examined in more detail. The results showed that an overwhelming majority of participants were opposed to prenatal sex selection, except for purely medical reasons.

Most had a very strong intuition about it at the start of the discussion, and very few changed their mind. What the group discussion enabled them to do was to clarify and articulate their moral reasoning behind their intuition.

Importantly, we were able to show that public responses to these issues are not based on unthinking, knee-jerk prejudice. Lay people use a variety of evaluative approaches and moral resources, including personal experience, analogies with similar situations, and hypothetical reasoning.

Overall they focus on the consequences of prenatal sex selection to the family and child, but they also gave a high value to the principle of treating the child as "a gift, not a commodity".

These results have implications for improving processes of public debate and consultation. Our participants valued the opportunity to give considered responses to an issue which they had never thought about before. None of those we asked had heard about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Agency's consultation on sex selection.