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Week 26 Questions for Know Thyself 2019: Moral Status of Fetuses

Week 26 Journal Questions: Moral Status of Fetuses

(This post is part of a weekly series for Know Thyself 2019, a 365 day journal project. Start here!

Weeks 25, 26, and 27 cover ethical issues; this week is the heaviest topic so far! Ethical topics are difficult because there are no definitive answers to ethical questions.  That means for every answer you give, someone could offer a reasonable argument against your answer, give a counter-example (an example that is evidence for the opposite answer), or show how fuzzy your concepts actually are.

That’s the nature of ethics.  Ethics is descriptive and prescriptive at the same time – it describes how things should be by (at least sometimes) just describing how they presently are.  With respect to the journal questions presented, keep in mind that, although there are plenty of contradictions in the evidence and no 100% firm answers, you should nonetheless try to make a philosophical commitment. That’s part of self-discovery – knowing what sits right with you, to hell with the evidence! Enjoy!)

The Moral Status of Fetuses

blue denim collared top with we see what we want text overlay

Let’s start this difficult topic by recognizing that we all care about fetuses and believe they have some moral status. Whether you’re discussing this issue with someone is pro-choice, pro-life, or declares undecided, take it for granted that s/he doesn’t wish harm on a fetus. I mean, it’s safe to say that protesters who are pro-choice aren’t pro-death; they’re protesting for what they believe are women’s rights. There’s a difference – like protesting in favor of job creation isn’t the same as protesting in favor of fossil fuel usage, even if increased workforce participation not-indirectly results in increase fossil fuels usage.  The point: we all recognize that fetuses have a moral status but can’t agree on three things: first, when that moral status comes about, second, what that moral status should be called, and third, what rights it earns the fetus.

When does a fetus gain a moral status?

I’ve listed some of the various thresholds at which a fertilized human egg is said to gain moral status equivalent with any other living, breathing human being.

Conception: The tissues – the fertilized egg – is always a human life.  Since the tissues have a unique set of all the genetic material required to become a human life, it is a complete human life.

Implantation: When the fertilized egg implants into the uterus wall a week after conception, it’s on a likely path to birth.

Structural completeness: At this point, the embryo has rudimentary forms of all organ structures. The heartbeat is a similar threshold.

Brain activity: If we give human beings rights because of our uniquely human cognitive abilities, then maybe it makes sense to give a fetus moral status when the brain begins activity.

Viability: The fetus reaches a stage in development after which it could likely survive outside the womb. This stage will become earlier and earlier as medical science advances.

Birth: The fetus is located wholly outside the mother’s body.

What should the moral status be called?

There are various proposed names besides “fetus”. Some people refer to the fetus as an unborn child or a pre-born, consistent with their beliefs that a gestating baby already has equivalent moral status to a baby.

Moral Status Implies Rights

When someone is granted moral status, that means she has certain rights and that other people have certain duties towards her.  (Last week’s post on Personhood has further clarification.) For this post, I’ve listed the most important right and duty.

Rights Against Interference: you cannot kill the being, experiment upon it, or cause its suffering; also known as a Right to Life.

Duty to Aid:  must assist to protect against foreseen harms whenever possible

There is a spectrum of beliefs about fetal moral status.  On one end of the spectrum are people who believe that a fetus has a moral status equivalent with any born human being, in conjunction with the belief that there are no exceptions to the right and duty listed above.  On the other end of the spectrum are people who think that a fetus does not has minimal moral status and that there are plenty of exceptions to the right and duty (e.g., effect on mother’s health, income,  circumstances that resulted in the pregnancy).

Journal Questions:

  1. Have you ever gotten involved in discussions related to this topic? What’s your attitude to discussing this topic – do you avoid it or enjoy the debate?
  2. Do you think it’s fair that the government forces you to wear a seatbelt or bicycle helmet, effectively controlling your body, even for your own good?
  3. Imagine you come back from your December vacation and find someone living in your house, uninvited. There are no homeless shelters around, so if you kick him out into the cold, he’ll surely die of exposure. Should you kick him out or let him stay?
  4. What were you taught by your parents, religion, or society about the moral status of a fetus? Do you still agree with those socialized beliefs, or do you disagree?  Why?
  5. At what point – if ever – do you think a fetus gains full moral status while still in the womb and when?
  6. Do you think a fetus can have a Right Against Interference? (Perhaps imagine your response to a pregnant woman drinking or using drugs.)
  7. Does a pregnant woman have a duty to aid? Does the government, therefore, have the duty to aid women who are pregnant?

I applaud you for tackling this difficult ethical issue!

How to get the most out of Know Thyself 2019

Don’t rush through the questions. Try to do only one question every morning, leaving space to add thoughts that might come up later during the day. The journal is designed to help you develop a consistent, daily practice of self-reflection.


If you liked this week’s post, please like or comment! I appreciate the feedback and use it to choose future topics. If you want to see more posts like this one, let me know!

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