Reproduction and ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L083-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 16, 2021, from

l The status of the foetus

A wide range of views on the moral status of the foetus, and whether it is the sort of thing that may, or may not, be killed has been defended. (1) According to the ‘conservative’ position, the foetus has, from the moment of conception, the same moral status as an adult human being. (2) At the other, ‘liberal’, extreme, the foetus is claimed to be nothing but a collection of cells, part of the pregnant woman’s body, like her appendix, until the moment of birth. Oddly enough, these diametrically opposed views share two assumptions; both assume that the moral status of the foetus remains unchanged from conception to birth and both assume that the foetus is, morally speaking, like something else – an adult or an appendix. Three other views reject at least one of these assumptions. (3) A ‘moderate’ view claims that the moral status changes at some determinate ‘cut off point’ such as motility or viability. (4) According to the ‘gradualist’ view, the moral status changes gradually, increasing as the foetus develops. (5) According to the ‘potentiality’ view, the foetus has a unique moral status, being quite unlike anything else, that of a potential human being, from the moment of conception. Minor variations on these views exist, beyond the scope of this entry; however, a well-known sixth must be mentioned. (6) According to Michael Tooley and his followers, whatever the foetus is, it is not a person, that is, does not have a right to life; and the same is true of infants (see Rights; Moral standing §3).

Each of these views has been not only defended, but contested. None has an argument to establish what the moral status of the foetus is that its opponents regard as conclusive and each has difficulties concerning its prima facie consequences, which may be seized upon by opponents as unacceptable. So, for example, the potentiality view’s ‘difficulty’ is that it hardly counts as yielding any consequences at all. The conservative view appears to yield the consequence that if you can save only a baby or a two-day-old embryo in vitro from certain death, you are faced with just the same moral dilemma as when you can save only one of two babies in cradles. Tooley’s view, notoriously, licenses infanticide, and so on. The difficulties become even more acute when we come to consider the treatment of foetuses not in utero.

Citing this article:
Hursthouse, Rosalind. l The status of the foetus. Reproduction and ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L083-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

Related Articles