zygote: first through third day
blastocyst: second day through second week
embryo: third week through eighth week
fetus: ninth week until birth
quickening: thirteenth week through twentieth week
viability: around the twenty-fourth week
1. Internally induced:
a. Spontaneous abortion (Miscarriage): anytime
2. Externally induced:
a. Drug such as "morning-after pill": immediately following intercourse
b. RU-486 (mifepristone): through week 7
c. Uterine or vacuum aspiration: through week 12
d. Dilation and curettage: through week 15
e. Dilation and Extraction: after week 16
f. Saline injection: after week 16
g. Hysterotomy (extremely rare): after week 16
In philosophy the term ontology refers to
the theory and nature of being and existence. When we speak of the ontological
status of the fetus, we mean the kind of entity the fetus is. Determining
the ontological status of the fetus bears directly on the issue of fetal
rights and, subsequently, on permissable treatment of the fetus.
Actually, the problem of ontological status embraces a number of questions, such as (1) whether the fetus is an individual organism; (2) whether the fetus is biologically a human being; (3) whether the fetus is psychologically a human being; (4) whether the fetus is a person. Presumably, to affirm question (2) is to attribute more significant status to the fetus than to affirm question (1); and to affirm question (3) is to assign even greater status. To affirm question (4), that the fetus is a person, probably is to assign the most significant status to the fetus, although this, as well as other presumptions, depends on the precise meaning of the concepts involved.
Complicating this issue is the notion of what is meant by "human life." The concept of "human life" can be used in two distinctively different ways. It can be used to refer to a strict set of biological characteristics that distinguish the human species from other non-human species. In this sense, the term "human life" might be consistent with the "individual organism," as in question (1). On the other hand, the term "human life" might refer to psychological human life, that is, to life that is characterized by the properties that are distinctly human. Among these properties might be the ability to use symbols, to think, and to imagine. Without these distinctions, abortion discussions can founder. For example, many who would agree that abortion involves the taking of a human life in the biological sense would deny that it involves the taking of a human life in the psychological sense. Moreover, they might see nothing immoral with taking life exclusively in the biological sense, although they would consider taking life in the psychological sense morally unacceptable. Thus they find nothing morally objectionable about abortion. Of course, at the root of this judgment is an assumption about the meaning of human life.
Linked with one's conception of human life is one's concept of "personhood." The concept of personhood may or may not differ from either the biological or the psychological sense of "human life." Some would argue that to be a person is simply to have the biological and/or psychological properties that make an organism human. Others, however, would propose further conditions for personhood, such as consciousness, self-consciousness, rationality, even the capacities for communication and moral judgment. In this view, an entity must satisfy some or all of these criteria, possibly even additional ones, in order to be a person. Thus they might argue that a person must be the bearer of legal rights and social responsibilities, and must be capable of being assigned moral responsibility, of being praised or blamed.
Clearly the conditions that one believes are necessary for "person" status directly affect the ontological status of the fetus. For example, if the condition is only of an elementary biological nature, then the fetus can more easily qualify as a person than if the conditions include a list of factual properties. Further, if "personhood" must be analyzable in terms of properties bestowed by human evaluation, it becomes infinitely more difficult for the fetus to qualify as a person.
In the final analysis, the ontological status of fetuses remains an open issue. But some viewpoint ultimately underpins any position on the morality of abortion. Whether conservative, liberal, or moderate, one must be prepared to defend one's view of the ontological status of fetuses.
When Ontological Status Is Attained
the problem of the ontological status is the question of when in fetal
development the fetus gains full ontological status. Whether one claims
the fetus is an individual organism, a biological human being, or a full-fledged
person, one must specify at what point in its biological development the
fetus attains this status. It is one thing to say what status the fetus
has; it is another to say when it has attained such status. A judgment
about when the fetus has the status bears directly on abortion views
as does a judgment of the status itself.
We can identify a number of positions on when status is attained. An extreme conservative position would argue that the fetus has full ontological status from the time of conception; at the time of conception the fetus must be regarded as an individual person. In direct contrast to this position is the extreme liberal position, which holds that the fetus never achieves ontological status.
Viewing these as polar positions, we can identify a cluster of moderate views that fall between them. In every instance, the moderate view tries to pinpoint full ontological status somewhere between conception and birth. For example, some would draw the line when brain activity is first present; others draw it at quickening; still others draw the line at viability.
Moral Status of the Fetus
The issue of moral status of the fetus is generally,
but not always, discussed in terms of the fetus' rights. What rights, if
any, does it have? Any position on abortion must at some point address
this question, and all seriously argued positions do, at least by implication.
Various views on the moral status of the fetus are currently circulating. Each view can be associated with one or another views on the fetus' s ontological status. For example, claiming that the fetus has full ontological status at conception, the extreme conservative view also holds that it has full moral status at the same stage. From the moment of conception on, the unborn entity enjoys the same rights we attribute to any adult human. In this view, abortion would be a case of denying the unborn the right to life. Therefore, abortion could never be undertaken without reasons sufficient to override the unborn's claim to life. In other words, only conditions that would justify the killing of an adult human--for example, self-defense--would morally justify an abortion.
Liberals similarly derive their view of moral status from their theory of ontological status. The extreme liberal view would deny the fetus any moral status. In this view, abortion is not considered comparable to killing an adult person. Indeed, abortion may be viewed as removing a mass of organic material, not unlike an appendectomy. Its removal raises no serious moral problems. A somewhat less liberal view, while granting the fetus ontological status as being biologically human, claims it is not human in any significant moral sense and thus has no significant rights.
Likewise, moderates would assign moral status to the fetus at the point that the entity attained full ontological status. If brain activity is taken as the point of ontological status, for example, then abortions conducted before that time would not raise serious moral questions; those conducted subsequent to that development would. Currently, viability seems to be an especially popular point at which to assign ontological status. And so, many moderate theorists today insist that abortion raises significant moral questions only after the fetus has attained viability. This view is reflected in some of the opinions delivered in the Roe v. Wade case.
It is important to note that granting the fetus moral status does not at all deny the moral status to the woman. Indeed, the question of whose rights should take precedence when a conflict develops raises thorny questions, especially for conservatives and moderates. For example, while granting the fetus full moral status, some conservatives nonetheless approve of therapeutic abortions--abortions performed to save the woman's life or to correct some life-threatening condition. These are viewed as cases of self-defense or justifiable homicide. Since self-defense and justified homicide commonly are considered acceptable grounds for killing an adult person, they are taken as moral justification for killing a fetus. But other conservatives disapprove of even therapeutic abortions.
Similarly, while moderates grant the fetus moral status at some point in development, they too must arbitrate cases of conflicting rights. They must determine just what conditions are sufficient for allowing the woman's right to override the fetus's right to life. Here the whole gamut of conditions involving the pregnancy must be evaluated, including rape, incest, fetal deformity, and of course physical and psychological harm to the woman.
Determining the moral status of the fetus, then, is directly related to determining when the fetus is actually a person. There is no question that even at the zygote stage, and from then on, the fetus is at least potentially a person (until it becomes actually so). At whatever point it becomes an actual person, we face a set of serious moral issues regarding abortion, among which are:
1. Does the fetus have a right to be carried full
2. Under what circumstances, if ever, can we take an innocent human life?
3. Is any other right more important than the right to life--for example, the woman's right to privacy?
4. If the woman's life is in danger because of the pregnancy, how do we decide whose right prevails?
If, as is the case at present, we can't determine with reasonable certainty at what point the fetus becomes fully a person, we're confronted with another set of problems:
1. Can we morally disregard the possibility that the
fetus might actually be a person (or may not)? If we
do, does that imply, at best, an indifference to an important moral value? And is not such an attitude of
not caring about a moral value itself morally questionable at least?
2. Can we ever act morally on a doubt--for example, a doubt about our obligation, the morally relevant
facts, the morally correct means? How are we to resolve our doubts?
Webster v. Reproductive Health Services - On July 3, 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Missouri law that declared in its preamble that the "life of each human being begins at conception." The law also requires physicians to conduct viability tests on the fetuses of women twenty weeks pregnant and prohibits the use of public funds, employees, and facilities to perform, assist, or counsel abortions not necessary to save the mother's life. Moreover, four justices indicated a willingness to overturn the Roe decision. Since then, the Court has upheld state laws requiring parental consent for abortions on minors.
Planned Parenthood v. Casey - The most significant ruling since Webster occurred on June 29, 1992. The issue in this case was a Pennsylvania law regulating abortions. Although the court upheld the right to abortion by a five-to-four majority, it also upheld two of the law's restrictions. The first requires a twenty-four-hour waiting period following a mandatory presentation intended to dissuade the woman from having an abortion. The second requires teenagers to have the consent of a parent or judge. Also upheld were two other provisions: one specifying medical emergencies that exempt a woman from the restrictions, the other requiring clinics to provide the state with statistical reports on abortions performed. One other requirement, that married women first tell their husband's, was struck down as placing an "undue burden" on them.
Stenberg v. Carhart - The Court's decision in this case, announced on
June 28, 2000, is also significant. At issue was a Nebraska law banning in all
circumstances except to save the woman's life a rare but highly controversial abortion
technique called dilation and extraction (D&X). The law did not use that
term, however. Instead, it referred to the procedure with the term commonly used by abortion
opponents, "partial birth abortion," which the law defined as "deliberately and intentionally
delivering into the vagina a living unborn child, or a substantial portion thereof, for the
purpose of performing a procedure that the person performing the procedure knows will kill
the unborn child." The majority opinion cited two chief reasons for declaring the law
unconstitutional. First, the law allowed no exception to preserve the woman's health. Second,
the law's definition of "partial birth abortion" was broad enough to cover another abortion
procedure, the one most commonly used in the second trimester (dilation and evacuation,
or intact D&E). In doing so it placed an "undue burden on a woman's right to terminate her
pregnancy before viability."
An very good on-line powerpoint presentation on the abortion issue
The Ethics Updates "Abortion & Ethics" page
CLRP Abortion Page
The Abortion Law Homepage
Abortion: All Sides of the Issue
Abortion in American History
On Abortion: A Lincolnian Perspective
Abortion (from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Feminism and Abortion
One Woman's Abortion
The Moral Question of Abortion (A text emphasizing a "pro-life" perspective. The full text is on-line!)
Abortion: Questions and Answers (Another "pro-life" slanted piece.)
Abortion (Another piece by Judith Jarvis Thomson)
When an Abortion is Not an Abortion
The Right of Abortion
An interesting overview of faulty reasoning on both sides of the debate
Against the Sanctity of Life