Abortion and a woman’s right to terminate the undesirable or abnormal pregnancy have always been a controversial and disputable issue due to its moral implications. Considering ethic dimensions of this subject is inevitable as termination of gestation results in killing the living being. In order to give the moral evaluation of this action and establish restrictions or adequate retributions if needed, a society should consider the moral status of the entity being killed. That is what constitutes a serious problem when dealing with abortion. Most moral communities refer to killing of a person as to amoral action and not only highly condemn it, but also pursue such cases legislatively. On the other hand, killing an animal or another living being is often acceptable and has no legal consequences (Gillon 2). Therefore, treating people implies certain moral obligations by virtue of their moral status. This raises a question whether a fetus is a person meaning what moral status it has. Philosophical and theological disputes considering the stated issue have been lasting for years and yet, there is no sole opinion regarding the moral status of the fetus. This ambiguity arises from several factors, such as an absence of the unified criteria and methodology when analyzing the problem and the dependence of the fetus on the pregnant woman, which results in a conflict between moral rights of the fetus (if it has any) and the autonomy of a woman. Thus, defining the moral status of the fetus includes the examination of existing criteria and their analysis in reference to the autonomy of a woman carrying it.
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When analyzing the abortion phenomenon, one might argue that considering the fetus status is not the issue of primary importance. For instance, feminists refer to it as to a social problem rather than a moral dilemma as they concentrate on outer influences, factors and conditions that lead to it (Steinbock 40). Some people also believe that abortion might be a forced decision; thus, moral evaluation of it is not always applicable. There might be different reasons for termination of a pregnancy, which briefly can be summarized in two groups of factors. The first group includes various malformations diagnosed prenatally, whereas the second one comprises the unwillingness of a woman to pursue her pregnancy that is not connected with medical parameters of germination of the fetus. Albeit the fact that any grounds of abortion result in killing the embryo or the fetus, the abnormality of a fetus is often considered a relatively acceptable justification. Some physicians argue that in cases, when malformations were diagnosed, medical abortions continue the process of a natural elimination of defective samples. This statement is based on the fact that only a comparatively small amount of pathological fetuses survive (Hirsch 508). On the other hand, there are cases, when continuation of the pregnancy threatens the woman’s life; therefore, abortion is the only alternative. When making a decision to terminate pregnancy, physicians usually rely on the principle of proportionality. It declares that any action involving risk should be considered from the perspective of potential harm and benefits, and pursued in a way that provides the greatest benefits and the least harm to the person (Chervenak 84). Taking this into account, termination of pregnancy is often reasonable. However, there are still many people, who consider it wrong in terms of ethics. Thus, they do not approve or excuse abortion for any objective reason as it is a violation of fetus’s moral right to life. Consequently, the moral status of a fetus and the time it acquires this status are crucial points when deciding whether abortion is morally permissible choice.
Obviously, a fetus acquires its moral status when it can be considered and treated as a person, but what criteria determine that? A human being cannot be defined as the one possessing a human genetic code because every cell of the human body has it (Hug 108). Therefore, a system of criteria is required to establish a unified approach to this issue. Whereas it does not exist yet, several various positions towards abortion have been formed, each having in its basis different evaluation criteria.
Bayles distinguishes conservative, liberate and moderate views of abortion (qtd. in Campbell 229). Conservative view suggests the moment of conception being the moment of occurring the human being (Campbell 229). This position is usually supported by religious people as the concept of soul plays a crucial role in its reasoning. The moment of becoming “ensouled” is a theological equivalent of a fetus becoming a person, thus acquiring a moral status and appropriate rights (Gillon 6). Therefore, from the moment a newly fertilized human ovum appears it should be treated as a person irrelevant to its stage of development. However, this point of view is too absolutist even for the Roman Catholic Church. It stated its official position in Declaration on Abortion by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and defined a 14 days period as the point when human life begins (qtd. in Gillon 5). This distinction is rather naive from the biological perspective (Campbell 229). Nevertheless, it suggests that stages of gestation affect the moral status of the fetus, and this idea underlies the moderate view as well. As stated above, the ensoulment is a crucial starting point for those holding a conservative position. However, they also consider other arguments, such as a unique genotype the fetus possesses. Unlike a mere human cell, the embryo or a zygote has a complement of chromosomes that differ from those of its mother (Steinbock 43). Consequently, the fetus is a new human being with a set of moral rights.
Provided that a conservative approach treats the embryo on the early stage and the infant as equal, it is obvious that abortion is unacceptable on any conditions, including the threat of mother’s death. It raises a question whether moral value of the fetus is bigger than it of the woman carrying it. As the fetus is dependent on its mother, when their needs differ, the crucial conflict between moral rights of the fetus and mother’s autonomy occurs. If the conservative view is accepted legislatively in the society, it will lead to the “coercive and punitive approach to pregnant women” (Isaacs 58). Thus, assigning moral status and full rights to the fetus from the moment of its conception or “hominisation” (Gillon 6) inevitably results in the infringement of the mother’s rights.
The other extreme position towards abortion and moral status of the fetus is liberal. It offers its own set of evaluation criteria when dealing with the issue. In order to define whether the fetus has any moral status, and hence, moral value and rights, liberals take into consideration whether it complies with demands of personhood, such as self-consciousness. (Campbell 230). According to this view, self-determination and possessing a concept of self are main parameters of a human being, which, obviously, the fetus at any stage of development fails to meet. Therefore, human fetus has no independent moral status and late termination of pregnancy is morally justified if the woman decides she does not want to deliver the child. However, she has no moral or legal right to kill an infant, even though it does not comply with the requirements of the personhood either (Isaacs 58). Obviously, liberals suggest that the fetus acquires its moral status at birth. Warren explains this in a way that infants are conveyed by birth in a social world (qtd. in Isaacs 58). However, is a change of location a sufficient ground for acquiring a moral status? The newborn child does not have “the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences and other mental states” (Campbell 230) either. Does this mean that it has no right to life? Besides this obvious misinterpretation of a human being, the liberal position ignores the potential of becoming a person, which a fetus undoubtedly has.
The moderate, also known as gradualist, position is a compromise between the stated above views, seeking a mediating position between those extremes. It suggests that a fetus possesses a graded moral status, which increases as the gestation proceeds (Isaacs 59). This assumption has gained popularity; however, defining the moment when a fetus acquires a moral status equal to that of a person has constituted a serious difficulty. The process of a fetus’s development demonstrates that it is impossible to determine the exact moment of transforming potential of becoming a person in an actual human being. The heart beating starts at the 4th week of prenatal development. Reflex movements occur at the 4th month, whereas, at the 6 months period, paradoxical sleep characteristics of dreams can be recorded. (Hirsch 508). Traditionally, the time of “quickening” (the time when a woman can physically feel fatal movements inside of her body) has been a distinction of a fetus transforming into a person (Gillon 6). Obviously, this is a moment of significant emotional value for a pregnant woman; however this by no means can indicate any sufficient changes in a moral status of a fetus. Another crucial factor that used to be referred to is the emergence of sentience. Bayles claims that this period in fetal development is crucial in realizing “abortion does end a life of some intrinsic value, and so should not be taken lightly” (qtd. in Campbell 230). Undoubtedly, the timing of sentience formation is crucial when deciding whether abortion should be permitted and how late they can be performed. However, there is still no exact answer to the question whether fetuses can feel pain before the 26th week of gestation: “While it is true that no one has established that fetuses do feel pain earlier … some scientists are reluctant to conclude that they do not” (Steinbock 48).
Currently, viability of a fetus is a crucial factor, which influenced the legislative restrictions on abortion. The US Supreme Court stated that the termination of pregnancy is prohibited from the point of viability of the fetus, unless it is required to preserve the life or health of a mother (qtd. in Campbell 228). The use of this concept represents the compromise trying to be achieved in terms of this moral issue, but it lacks precision and ethic justification. According to the Peel Commission report, viability of a fetus is defined as the ability to function and sustain its existence independently from the mother (qtd. in Campbell 231). Nevertheless, this definition does not take into consideration the level of technical support provided; thus, it is subject to modification and adjustments, considering the current neonatal practice. As the viability of a fetus depends on the technologies available in a certain society, it cannot be considered a reliable criterion for indicating the change of moral status of a fetus either.
As stated above, there are various views and beliefs considering the abortion and its moral implications. Whereas there is no exact and unified criterion for defining the moment when fetus acquires a moral status, it is impossible to determine whether termination of pregnancy is a morally acceptable choice. Suggested approaches to the abortion either infringe the mother’s autonomy and her moral rights or reject the moral status of the fetus up to the moment of birth. Although viability of the fetus is the only legally accepted criterion used for framing the legislative restrictions of abortions, it is not a universal parameter as it depends on non-moral factors, such as the level of technical support in the neonatal care. Therefore, giving a moral evaluation of the termination of pregnancy and defining the moral status of a fetus is impossible without the development of a unified system of criterion. This constitutes the issue of primary importance when dealing with ethical dimensions of abortion.
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