When Does a Fetus Have Rights?




What sort of rights should a fetus or embryo have? This isn’t the only question in debates about abortion, but it’s an important one.

The central claim of anti-abortion activists is that destroying a fetus or embryo is wrong because it’s killing a being that has a right to live. And part of the case for abortion access is the opposite claim, that a fetus or embryo is not yet a being with rights. This denial is only part of the case for abortion rights: there’s also the claim that even if a fetus or embryo has rights, the pregnant person’s right to bodily autonomy should take precedence, and the claim that banning abortion is harmful to women’s health, safety, and equality. But it is nevertheless worth exploring the question of what rights a fetus or embryo should have – the question of its ‘moral status’.

The question of moral status is difficult because it depends on multiple other questions, spanning different disciplines: ethics, philosophy of mind, and neuroscience. In this article I’ll try to tease apart five of those questions, and get a sense of what some plausible answers might be:

What features give a being moral status? This is a question in philosophical ethics. Among the popular answers, the most significant for the abortion debate may be sentience.

What is sentience? This is a question in philosophy of mind. We should distinguish physical detection of a stimulus, the conscious experience it gives rise to, and cognitive awareness of that experience.

What makes us sentient? What brain structures enable conscious experiences? This is a question at the intersection of philosophy with neuroscience, and while there’s still uncertainty, most evidence points to the cerebral cortex.

What brain structures do embryos and fetuses have, at various points during pregnancy? This is a question in developmental neuroscience, where the preponderance of evidence is that the cerebral cortex forms quite late in pregnancy.

Finally, how much does potential matter? When something isn’t yet sentient, how much should it matter if it could become sentient in the future? This is another question in ethics, though it connects with philosophy of mind through the question of personal identity.

None of these questions are easy, but some answers are likely to have more widespread appeal than others. After reviewing these five questions, I’ll suggest that combining the most appealing answers supports thinking that moral status appears quite late in pregnancy, well after the overwhelming majority of abortions happen.

Question 1: What features give a being moral status?

This is a big question, so we can’t survey all the options, but three common answers are relevant here:

First, people sometimes appeal to a cluster of sophisticated mental capacities – things like being able to talk, to reason, to think about yourself as yourself, to consider things from other people’s perspectives, etc. These capacities all seem to be distinctively human: no …

Originally appeared on Daily Philosophy Read More



HowTheLightGetsIn Hay 2023

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