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The abortion controversy has occupied the public domain for years, with no clear resolution in sight. This is amid the fact that abortion was legalized in the United States in 1973, after the Supreme Court's landmark "Roe vs. Wade" decision. Since abortion requires conception, it impacts the entire human race. A multitude of influences, including environmental science, legal viewpoints, and ethical perspectives, have shaped arguments for and against abortion. The effect of one's faith on one's abortion stance is also important, especially among anti-abortion activists. This explains the fact that arguments for or against abortion usually elicit extreme reactions from a substantial proportion of individuals. Ethical perspectives of abortion cover a variety of factors that include the fetus’s moral status, personhood, potentiality, and women rights. The request for abortion should not be seen as a thoughtless desire but rather as a decision arrived at after the consideration of the ethical perspectives of the pregnancy termination.
The Moral Status of Fetus
The concept of the moral status is very important since it is essentially the core of the debate. It also drives other controversial issues in the public sphere such as artificial reproduction, human cloning, and embryo research. According to Warren (1), “to have a moral status is to be morally considerable, or to have moral standing. It is to be an entity towards which moral agents have, or can have moral obligations.” As such, the determination of the fetus’s moral status should be done with consideration of the woman requesting the abortion. There are several questions that arise in this case: “Does a fetus have the moral status of a human being? Is it a being of equivalent moral significance to the woman in whose body it resides? If it does not possess equivalent moral status, does it instead possess some form partial moral status, perhaps based on its potential to be a fully- fledged moral agent? Alternatively, does a fetus have no moral status at all?” (Lotz 2).
Moral status can be viewed in a variety of ways. The biological view or the moral status of a fetus has varied with the advancement of technology thus there is no definitive scientific theory as to when a fetus can be regarded to have a moral standing. The definition of moral status by Mary Warren suggests the capacity of the fetus to survive independently of the mother. It is only at this point that the fetus can sufficiently honor its basic rights without consequently infringing on other’s rights. As such, merely being viable does not give a fetus a moral status. The threshold for the moral status of the fetus is, therefore, birth. A fetus will potentially become an adult later on in life but as a fetus, it not already one. “A fetus is not a person proper, but rather a potential one” (Baertschi 76). It would, therefore, be wrong to deny a woman’s legal right to abortion on the basis of the fetus’s moral status. The moral status of the woman takes precedence, in this case. A woman can, therefore, terminate an unwanted or potentially fatal pregnancy as long as she satisfies the regulations set out by the Roe vs. Wade ruling regarding the second and third trimesters.
The Personhood Argument
The notion of “personhood” greatly influences the moral status of a fetus. It refers to the capacity of an individual for mental activities such as reasoning, interaction with others in a social sense, and self- awareness. A living thing can only be regarded as human if “they possess the aforementioned morally significant characteristics and capacities, they are able to value their own lives, and the lives of other persons, to a greater extent than those beings who lack these mental and social capacities” (Lotz 6). In the abortion argument, the woman possesses all morally significant characteristics with regard to personhood. This is unlike the case with a fetus which lacks awareness of self and other characteristics such as the sense of responsibility that essentially make a living thing human. A fetus is, therefore, not a person. It cannot have rights that are normally attributable to persons. As such, based on the concept of personhood, it abortion cannot be regarded as an act that is morally prohibited. The rights and interests of a fetus can, therefore, not supersede those of an existing human being who is a “fully- fledged person.” The mother’s interests and preference, therefore, come first.
The personhood argument is often seen as a perspective that supports the killing of infants. However, this is not the case since the personhood perspective would only apply in the rare circumstances in which the killing of the non- person would be the only substitute to killing a “fully- pledged person.”
The Potentiality Argument
The potentiality point of view also offers an alternative interpretation of the moral status of the unborn fetus. The focus here is on the potential that the fetus possesses since eventually, it will be a person if it normally develops both physically and psychologically. However, the potential of the fetus doesn’t mean that it should be afforded the rights granted to a “fully- fledged person.” Potential is not a sufficient parameter in the determination of rights. A 16- year- old does not gain the right to a driving license based on the fact that they are a potential driver. The potentiality argument is also inappropriate in the determination of moral status since it would also mean that viable sperms and unfertilized ova would be regarded as potential persons. This would beat the logic of probably everyone since it is clear that sperms and ova cannot be seen as having equal moral status as human beings. As such, potentiality cannot be the basis for overruling the rights of a “fully- fledged person” on the basis of the rights and interests of a potential person. The implications of giving precedence to a potential person would be undesirable for other facets of life in general.
The Independence and Rights of Women
Most opponents of abortion ignore women as a major stakeholder in the debate. A woman has rights and interests that should also play a significant role in deciding whether abortion can be justified from an ethical perspective. The rights of a woman are often seen as secondary to those of the potential person in the case of the fetus. A woman has the right over what happens to her body. As such, it would be unreasonable to force her to keep a fetus conceived in cases such as rape or where the pregnancy would harm her very existence it was to continue. Advancements in technology have also made it possible to determine whether a fetus has some deformities that would, later on, affect its quality of life and that of its mother. In the case of fetal impairment, the termination of the pregnancy is justified. “Forcing a woman to give birth to an unwanted child with a disability would infringe her right to refuse to consent to the substantial sacrifice of her liberty, autonomy, and bodily integrity” (Boonin 230). The autonomy of a woman as a human being should always be considered in the determination of whether abortion is permissible from an ethical standpoint.
The issue of abortion is not as straightforward as many people seem to imagine. Religious bias greatly informs mainstream criticism of abortion. However, it is always important to consider the moral status of the fetus being defended and the rights and interests of the vilified women who request abortions. The personhood and potentiality arguments both offer different explanations on why a fetus should not be regarded as a “fully- fledged person.” The woman should always be the primary consideration when it comes to any argument for or against the termination of pregnancies. As a “fully- fledged” person, she should always take precedence when it comes to a conflict with any other non- person. It is, therefore, important to realize that the decision reached at by a woman regarding the termination of pregnancy is always informed by a consideration of all ethical dimensions related to the issue.
Baertschi, Bernard. The question of the embryo’s moral status. Bioethica forum, 1.2(2008): 76- 80.
Boonin, David. A defense of abortion. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Lotz, Mianna. Ethical arguments concerning the moral permissibility of abortion. 2006. Macquarie University.
Warren, Mary Anne. Moral Status: Obligations to persons and other living things. 1997. Clarendon Press.
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