Abortion rages on as a philosophical debate in the United States, even though the legality of abortion has largely been settled by the Supreme Court. Most discussions on abortion dance around the primary question, with subsidiary debates taking precedence. At the heart of the abortion debate, though, is a moral question about the status of the unborn fetus. All abortion debates come down to the moral standing of the fetus because the fetus’s moral standing determines the rightness or wrongness of its destruction, the fetus’s legal rights, and the potential punishment for a person who terminated the fetus.
The moral standing of a being determines the rightness or wrongness in asserting one’s own rights over that being. Human beings take dominion over a range of animals, killing them for food, for issues of control, and even for sport. Likewise, human beings have outright dominion over plant life, even though it technically has life. Where society begins to create rules about dealing with a thing is when that thing is deemed to have a special moral status. This is why the body of laws, or the social contract, continues to exist. It governs the extent to which people can override other people. With this in mind, the debate over the rightness or wrongness of abortion is wholly dependent on the moral standing of the fetus.

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Most debates over abortion center on the legality of the act. Those who are pro-birth argue that abortion should be illegal because it constitutes murder. In making that argument, they are essentially arguing that an unborn fetus should have the same rights as an actually born child. Those who are pro-choice argue that abortion should be a legal option, giving women the right to choose whether they want to carry their pregnancies to term or terminate their pregnancies at a certain point. This position presupposes that a fetus does not have the moral rights of a born person. Because the law itself is supposed to be a reflection, in some ways, of the morality of human beings, the question of the legal rights given to fetuses depends on the resolution of questions about the moral status of fetuses.

In addition, the debates about the punishment for a person who has an abortion rest in the moral status of the fetus. Society sets up its punishment system based upon harm caused, and that harm is based upon the moral standing of the thing being harmed. Killing a rabbit in a brutal fashion is unlikely to cause criminal charges, though there can be animal abuse charges for some acts. Still, animal abuse nets one a far shorter punishment than abuse against human beings. With this in mind, those discussions over the punishment for people who have an abortion is centered wholly on questions of the moral standing of the fetus.

Some would argue that the moral standing of the fetus is not the determinant point in these discussions. They would argue that the debate centers on the rights of a woman to control her own body. Even though this is correct, this position misses a critical point. That is, whether a fetus is considered a part of the woman’s body or its own entity is a question that depends heavily on how one resolves the moral question of the fetus.

All debates on abortion come down to one critical point. What is the moral standing of the fetus? How one resolves this question for herself will help to determine how one resolves other questions surrounding the fetus. Legal questions, moral questions, and even questions of punishment all come down to how one views the moral status of the fetus.

  • Minkoff, Howard, Mary Faith Marshall, and Joan Liaschenko. “The fetus, the “potential child,” and the ethical obligations of obstetricians.” Obstetrics & Gynecology 123.5 (2014): 1100-1103.
  • Sumner, Leonard Wayne. Abortion and moral theory. Princeton University Press, 2014.