Fetuses, Newborns, and Parental Responsibility

By Prabhpal Singh

Does a fetus have the same moral status as a newborn baby? When we compare the two, we see that both lack traditional morally relevant features (a rational capacity, a certain sort of consciousness, a certain sort of first-person experience, autonomy required for personhood, etc.). Accordingly, some philosophers have thought fetuses and newborns share the same moral status. It is then argued from this equality of moral status between fetuses and newborns that the moral status of abortion must be the same as the moral status of infanticide. If abortion is morally impermissible, then so is infanticide. But, if abortion is morally permissible, then so is infanticide. Since no one takes seriously that infanticide is permissible, it appears then that those on the ‘pro-choice’ side of the debate are being inconsistent. One cannot claim that abortion is permissible while also claiming infanticide is not.

However, this inconsistency persists only if we accept that fetuses and newborns have equal moral status. In my paper, “Fetuses, Newborns, and Parental Responsibility”, I delineate an account of the difference in moral status between the two. Much of the talk surrounding the moral status of fetuses has focused on intrinsic morally relevant features (such as having a rational capacity, or self-consciousness, etc.). But these are not the only sort of morally relevant features. There are also relational morally relevant features. Such features belong to things in so far as they stand in the relevant sort of relationship with another thing (such as another person, or features of the environment). One such relational morally relevant feature a thing can have is what I call ‘being the proper object of parental responsibility’. I argue that the newborn is the proper object of parental responsibility while the fetus is not. This means there is at least one morally relevant feature newborns have that fetuses do not. So, they do not share equal moral status. I conclude that because of this difference in moral status there is no inconsistency in claiming abortion is morally permissible while also claiming infanticide is morally impermissible.

Being able to identify the morally relevant features of a thing is essential to determining where it falls on the radar of our moral consideration. As has been discussed in the literature, fetuses do not have traditional intrinsic morally relevant features. As I argue, they lack any relational morally relevant features as well. So the question is what is the morally relevant feature of fetuses that makes killing them wrong? If they lack personhood, a rational capacity, concern for the future, self-consciousness, and do not stand in any special relation, they lack any morally relevant properties. Some arguments for the wrongness of abortion try to draw analogies with actions already widely regarded as wrong (such as murder, infanticide, and even impairing a fetus by consuming alcohol during pregnancy), and while this is common way of arguing in Ethics, I don’t think such arguments really get at the heart of the abortion issue. If we cannot say what it is about the fetus in particular that is morally relevant, it’s not clear to me any argument for the wrongness of abortion can succeed.


Paper title: Fetuses, Newborns, and Parental Responsibility

Author: Prabhpal Singh


Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship, Montclair NJ, USA

University of Waterloo, Waterloo ON, Canada

Competing interests: None

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