The majority of the debates on abortion boil down to a single fundamental question: Is fetus a human being? Is fetus a person? The notion of fetus as an “innocent human being” has been trumpeted so much by pro-life activists that for a layman it almost sounds axiomatic, but the fact is that it is far from being so obvious. A question even more fundamentally linked to the philosophical debate, but seldom raised explicitly is: Does fetus have a soul? Now, soul is a religious concept, and as such, has no scientific validity. All scientific research points to the fact that the concept of ‘soul’ as defined by religion is false and redundant. The closest approximate to soul which science offers is Consciousness, which is not really what the religious notion of soul entails. For most religious people, the definition of a ‘person’ or a ‘human being’ is based on the question of whether the body possesses a soul or not. Some would say that even a zygote (fertilized ovum) possesses a soul and some would say that the soul enters the fetus later at some point (120 days, according to some Islamic traditions). However, since there is no such thing as a soul, and I believe there isn’t, then the whole issue becomes superfluous and the idea of “manhood” or “personhood” is deprived of its metaphysical status. The truth is that personhood is just a word, an abstract notion, with no concrete basis in reality as such. It is a description of sorts that is distilled from the observation of living human beings. To call a zygote or a fetus a ‘human being’ is simply absurd because they do not fit that description. There are various markers of personhood, such as consciousness (or at the very least the ability to feel pain), reasoning, self-motivation, communication, language, memory, autonomy etc. A fetus gradually acquires these markers one by one and hence approximates the description of personhood as its development proceeds in time, and continues on even during infancy. It is ridiculous to ask “At what point does fetus become a human being?” because there is no such point in time. It is a gradual development to manhood. Status as a human being is not an “Either/or” “All or None” matter; such bias in thinking can only be justified by a belief in soul.
A zygote at the time of conception is alive, is biologically a member of the species Homo sapiens. However, this by itself doesn’t determine its moral status as a ‘human being’. Because a zygote possesses none of the markers associated with personhood, its moral-status-as-human-being (MSAH) has a value of zero. Let us assign, for purpose of this discussion, a MSAH value of 100 to a neonate. During the whole course of pregnancy, the MSAH value gradually increases from zero but remains below 100. The MSAH value also determines the intensity of concern over its death. Consider natural deaths. If a zygote fails to implant in uterus and leaves the female body, then no one is distressed by the loss of a life. It is for the same reason that when contraception is achieved with an IUD that prevents implantation of zygote, hardly anyone is emotionally concerned about the loss of a life. Similarly, if a woman presents with a ruptured ectopic pregnancy at 8 weeks, or with spontaneous abortion, then no mother is grief-struck over the loss of a baby, because the fetus at that point has a very low MSAH value. If the conception was unplanned, she might even be relieved! However, if the same death of fetus occurs by natural means in the 7th month of life, then everyone would be upset, because the fetus has a high MSAH score by that time. What applies for natural deaths in this case also applies for unnatural deaths, i.e. abortion. An abortion in the first month of life has no moral significance because of the very low MSAH score. But if a medically unwarranted abortion is carried out in the 8th month of gestation, then eye-brows of most people would be raised. So the question becomes, when does a fetus acquire a moral status that is significant for us to be concerned about its death? Since, metaphysically speaking, there is no such exact point, what we actually need is a close enough arbitrary point which can serve our practical purpose of deciding up till when abortion should be allowed legally.
A related question is that of consciousness. When does a fetus acquire consciousness? The fact of the matter is that consciousness is a really tricky topic, and philosophers are still arguing what consciousness is. So it is an ever trickier question to ask in relation to a fetus. Consciousness, also, is not an “all or none” thing. It develops and matures. However, the current research seems to indicate that the fetal brain begins to possess a capacity for minimal consciousness somewhere around 26 weeks (700 g), and before that it is not possible because of the immaturity of its brain networks. The question regarding when a fetus can feel pain has a slightly more definite answer, with the most recent research saying that the sensory nervous pathways are not developed enough to experience pain in a fetus less than 24 weeks old. Even after 24 weeks, it is uncertain if the fetus can feel pain, because “increasing evidence suggests that the fetus never enters a state of wakefulness inside the womb. The placenta produces chemicals that suppress nervous system activity and awareness.” However, to give the benefit of the doubt to the fetus, let us consider 24 weeks to be point where a fetus can feel pain, which also coincides with the age of viability.
As we are looking for an arbitrary legal point where moral status of a fetus becomes significant enough, it is natural to suggest that the point at which a fetus becomes capable of feeling pain (24 weeks), which is also the age of viability, should be taken as a legal limit to abortion. Below that an abortion is morally as well as legally permissible, even if it is simply based on a lack of desire on parents’ part to have a baby. Even after 24 weeks, since a fetus is not as morally significant as a human being, abortion should still be morally and legally permissible if it is medically indicated or if the psychological and social condition of the mother is of such nature as to warrant it. I don’t think any exact criteria can be formulated for these conditions because it would be in any case a judgment call, but a few examples can be pregnancy in a case of rape, poverty, mental illness in mother and evidence of a congenital disease in the fetus.
1. Lagercrantz, Hugo. The Emergence of Human Consciousness: From Fetal to Neonatal Life. 2009. http://journals.lww.com/pedresearch/Fulltext/2009/03000/The_Emergence_of_Human_Consciousness__From_Fetal.1.aspx
2. Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Fetal Awareness. 2010. http://www.rcog.org.uk/files/rcog-corp/RCOGFetalAwarenessWPR0610.pdf
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