When does a foetus become morally equivalent to a human being?


When does a foetus become morally equivalent to a human being?

In the second trimester of my first pregnancy, I miscarried my twins. Around 14 weeks after one foetus died, I went into preterm labour, which was probably brought on by the first fetus's loss and infection. At 1812 weeks, I gave birth to the second twin, who on the ultrasound looked absolutely fine but was simply too young to live.

These were some of my saddest times; I mourned for years

Even ten years later, I still frequently think about this incident. But in recent days, the US Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, has also served as a continual topic of discussion. I consider how the dilation and curettage, a typical early abortion procedure I underwent to remove the placenta, is now prohibited in almost all situations in six states when performed to end a pregnancy containing a live foetus. I wonder if doctors wouldn't have refused to help me if the infection had gotten worse if my body hadn't halted the pregnancy.

But the majority of the time, I consider the implications of the Supreme Court's decision on abortion in the second trimester on June 24. As some commentators have noted, there will undoubtedly be an increase in second-trimester abortions because early abortion is now prohibited or severely limited in most of the nation.

In my opinion, it is morally repugnant to prevent someone from getting an abortion in their own state, regardless of their motivation. But from the perspective of moral concern for foetuses, it also matters that more abortions might be delayed into the second trimester when pregnant women face more access challenges. Many individuals believe that losing a pregnancy later in the pregnancy is more heartbreaking than losing it at an earlier stage. For later vs earlier abortions, the same holds true.

As a moral philosopher, I am aware that gradualism is a philosophical theory that can aid in making sense of this notion. According to gradualism, the process of developing moral standing is gradual and ongoing throughout pregnancy. This implies that later-born foetuses have greater status than earlier-born ones, and therefore later abortions are also ethically more serious.

Limitations and postponed abortions

Abortions frequently take place fairly early in the United States: 79.3 per cent before 9 weeks and 92.7 per cent before 14 weeks. Compare that to 1974, the first year following the historic Roe v. Wade ruling, when 21% of abortions occurred during the second trimester.

Some second-trimester abortions are carried out as a result of foetal defects that are identified later; in other situations, the expectant mother may desire or need to terminate the pregnancy due to changes in her health or financial situation.

However, there are other causes of second-trimester abortions that are related to policy. Abortion care can be delayed by mandatory waiting periods and restrictions on public funding. According to research, when governments impose waiting periods of merely 24 hours, the number of second-trimester abortions among people who use in-state providers rises. The second-trimester abortion rate rose from 22% to 43% in 2015 as a result of Tennessee's new waiting time.

With many pregnant women having to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest provider as a result of the recent Supreme Court decision, delays are likely to become the norm. Clinics in blue states are bracing for a surge in out-of-state patients after seeing a spike in Texas patients flying to other states after the state passed a legislation outlawing abortion. The later gestational age at which those impacted by Texas' ban get abortions has also been seen by providers.

Therefore, even if women in the South and the Midwest finally get access to abortions in other states, they might be compelled to carry the pregnancy for several more weeks or months. Second-trimester terminations carry greater health risks than early terminations, are more expensive, and are less frequently performed by clinicians who have received the necessary training. Additionally, second-trimester abortion can be morally and emotionally challenging for both physicians and patients. In actuality, 91% of women who had an abortion in the second trimester said they would have preferred to do it earlier.

What is a foetus' moral standing?

The moral standing of a foetus influences the morality of abortion in part. Full moral status, sometimes known as "personhood," refers to having the same moral standing and rights as every other human being.

The most well-known theories about the worth of prenatal life search for a "bright line," or point in development at which a foetus attains complete moral status. While some pro-choice advocates look to birth or the first breath, the majority of abortion opponents tend to think that conception is the dividing line.

Viability, the estimated time at which a baby can survive outside of the womb (approximately 23 weeks), functioned as a legal boundary during the Roe era. In the past, "quickening," which occurs when a pregnant woman experiences foetal movement at about four months, was believed to be the moral deciding factor.

Many philosophers look to cognitive abilities, such as consciousness, reasoning, or self-awareness, which do not develop until the third trimester or even after delivery, as an alternative to these clear-cut categories. These viewpoints all agree that foetuses before the bright-line are morally insignificant to non-existent.

All of this is rejected by gradualism. It maintains that there is no such clear-cut answer. Instead, a fetus's physical, cognitive, and relational development coincides with how its moral position develops. A zygote has almost no more status than sperm and an egg immediately after conception. However, the moral value of the embryo gradually and steadily grows over time.

As a result, whereas an embryo at 6 or 8 weeks may have a very low status, a foetus at 32 or 35 weeks has about the same moral position as a newborn. Therefore, from a gradualist perspective, the first abortion is typically ethically unimportant, whereas the third-trimester abortion is considered as severe conduct that requires the strongest of moral justifications.

Meanwhile, as gradualist philosopher Margaret Little puts it, mid-pregnancy foetuses are morally "in between." The theory holds that although foetuses have important moral value at this stage of pregnancy, they have not yet attained complete moral status. As a result, it is morally justifiable to end their lives.

The advantage of gradualism over bright-line views is that it explains why people strongly favour early abortion but are ambivalent about terminations in the second and third trimesters.

The viewpoint in the post-Roe era also emphasises the moral tragedy that would result if state abortion restrictions that target early abortion increased the rate of second-trimester terminations. After all, from a gradualist perspective, second-trimester abortion is much more ethically troubling than early abortion.

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