MAIN ETHICAL ISSUES. The applied ethical issue of abortion involves a consideration of the
reasons for or against terminating the life of a fetus. Much has been written on the issue of
abortion both in the popular press and in the philosophical literature. The debate focuses on two
distinct issues: (1) whether a human fetus has a right to life, and, if so, (2) whether the rights of the
mother ever override the fetus's right. Often the issues are discussed independently of each other.
Discussion of the first issue, regarding a fetus's right to life, usually draws on the concept of moral
personhood. A being is a morally significant person when it is a rights holder, and we ...view middle of the document...
The challenge is in
providing reasons in support of one criterion over another.
But even if we all could agree on a criterion of personhood, such as the moment of conception, the
abortion debate would not be over. For, questions arise about whether the mother's right of
self-determination overrides the rights of the fetus. It is the mother's body that is affected by the
pregnancy, and it is her emotional and social life that will be drastically altered for at least the next
nine months and beyond. These factors carry at least some weight. Other potentially overriding
factors complicate the rights of the fetus, such as whether the pregnancy resulted from rape, or
contraception failure. Arguments are required from both camps to establish the relative weight of
Historically, attitudes about abortion and the moral status of a fetus have fluctuated. Aristotle
endorses abortion when writing that "when couples have children in excess, let abortion be
procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases
depends on the question of life and sensation" (Politics, 7:16). The Hippocratic Oath states "Nor
will I give a woman a pessary to procure abortion." The Jewish Talmud, compiled around 600 CE,
holds that "an embryo is a limb of its mother" [Hulin 58a] and for the first forty days after
conception, the embryo is "simply water" [Yevamot 69b]. A fetus's life is of equal importance to that of the mother's only "once its head has emerged (from her body)"[Mishna Oholot 7:6].
Medieval theologians address the question of the moral status of a fetus by examining whether the
fetus has a human soul. Aquinas held that the fetus only gradually acquires a human soul, and in
the early stages of pregnancy is not technically human. The basis for Aquinas's view is a position
called hylomorphism, that is, that the human soul can only exist in a distinctly human body. For
example, a wooden chair cannot have a human soul. God, then, does not implant the human soul in
a fetus until it that fetus takes a distinctly human form. Aquinas believed that this happened at
about 40 days for males and 80 days for females. Scholars speculate that the difference was based
on the point at which male and female sex organs could be observed in miscarriages. The
implication is that one does not kill a human by aborting a fetus prior to the point at which it
obtains a soul. In the selection below, Aquinas describes the process by which a fetus acquires a
distinctly human soul. Following Aristotle's tripartite division of the soul, Aquinas argues that the
fetus first has only the vegetative soul, which allows it to take in nutrition. For Aquinas, the fetus
gets this directly from the father's semen, which follows the natural mechanism by which life
produces more life. Next, the fetus develops a sensitive soul, which allows it to have sensations.
Finally, though a special act of creation, God implants the...