Handout: Abortion and Ethical Theories

The Moral Status of the Foetus:

Philosophical Investigations into the Abortion issue

The Nature of the Problem

Click here if you're not sure what's involved with an abortion - the different methods used, or if you're worried about an unwanted pregnancy. Click here for the current state of UK law on abortion. An embryo is defined as biological human life from 14 days to eight weeks. A foetus is defined as biological life from eight weeks to birth. Because the primitive streak emerges at 14 days the biological life from 0-14 days is now termed the pre-embryo - perhaps because of the advent of IVF treatments involving multiple pre-embryos. Click here for an excellent book to buy on this issue by Charlotte Vardy (Life and Death, Pushmepress, 2012). PB       

abortion_photo_parableAbortion has become a widespread and largely accepted feature of our society: today 25% of foetuses are aborted, and 8%  of the total (16,460 in 2009) were teenage pregnancies.  Interestingly, 11% were women having repeat abortions. Most (87%) occurred  within the first thirteen weeks of pregnancy.2 Indeed, it is difficult to persuade doctors to perform very late abortions, unless there is overwhelming medical evidence, for example, that the mother's life is at risk.

This seems to imply that most of us attribute a different moral status to the tiny foetus of thirteen weeks, versus the perfectly formed foetus of 23 weeks (the term was reduced in a 1990 amendment to the 1967 Act from 28 to 24 weeks in recognition that the age of viability - meaning the age of survivability - had come down with advances in post-natal care).

However, there seem to be a number of issues to address:

1. Are we right to attribute a different moral status to a foetus of 23 weeks?  What might be the philosophical (rather than emotional) reasons for so doing?

2. Does a woman have an absolute right to abortion?  From where does this right come?

3. Are there wider social issues surrounding abortion, such as the effects on the mental health of the mother, or the erosion of the sanctity of human life in other areas?

4.  Can any of our key philosophical theories (Utilitarianism, Situation Ethics, Kantian Ethics, Natural Law or Virtue Ethics) help us at all?

5.  How do we answer the metaphysical question - when does the foetus have human rights?  It's beyond science to answer this question as there is no significant fact we can agree upon to define personhood.  Our views on this are determined by belief rather than some significant moment of transformation in foetal or embryonic life.

And of course, with the development of in vitro fertilization and embryo research (for example into stem cell treatments) there are ethical questions surrounding the moral status of the foetus outside as well as inside the womb.

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