THE MORAL STATUS OF THE UNBORN
Perhaps the most vexing quandary in reproductive ethics is the question of the moral status of the fetus, and how that status relates to the interests of the pregnant woman and other parties. The term fetus is used here to refer to the unborn in all stages of _pregnancy, including embryo. The moral status of the fetus is critical to the ethical debate over abortion. The issue is also relevant, however, in many other contexts, such as scientific experimentation on frozen embryos or aborted fetuses, or the disposition of frozen embryos, or concerns about the potential harm posed the fetus by drug-abusing pregnant women.
Views concerning the moral standing of the fetus vary along a wide spectrum, from those who believe that the fetus is a "person" from the moment of conception, with all the rights of a person, to the position that the fetus has no special moral status deserving of protection until birth. Between these two convictions lies the more moderate, and probably predominant, stance that the fetus's status as a "potential" person deserves serious consideration at any stage of gestation, but that it gains more fully fledged moral standing as it reaches viability, the ability to survive outside the mother's body. Exactly what point in its development the fetus attains personhood, with attendant moral and legal obligations toward it, is of course an intractable controversy, since there is much disagreement on the criteria for personhood.
The moral status of the fetus is relevant to deciding whether the fetus should have rights to certain protections, such as a right to be born, or a "right to life." Just as views differ as to when the fetus attains moral standing, there are also divergent opinions concerning when, if at all, the fetus attains a right to life. One argument holds that the unborn have a right to life at conception, and therefore forms of contraception that prevent implantation in the uterus, such as the intrauterine device, are ethically impermissible. In the context of abortion, views again occur on a continuum, from those who believe that the fetus has a right to be born from the start of pregnancy and therefore that abortion is always morally wrong, to those who argue that abortion is permissible until some later stage in fetal development, usually around fetal viability, which generally occurs at about six months gestation.
The moral status of the fetus, and whether it has a right to be born, are ethical questions relevant to reproductive contexts besides abortion. For instance, what moral respect should be accorded embryos that are created in a laboratory, either for purposes of research or for the use of assisted reproduction technologies such as in vitro fertilization (IVF)? The leading moral view is that the human embryo should be given special respect even if it is not accorded full moral and legal rights of a person.
Others disagree, arguing either that the embryo should be accorded no more moral respect than a clump of cells, or that the embryo should be accorded full moral status as a person. Given these varying views, there is disagreement as to whether it is ever morally permissible to create embryos solely for the purpose of research or whether and when embryos may be discarded that have been created in the laboratory or in connection with reproductive technologies such as IVF.
The fate of embryos created for IVF that are then frozen and not used also raises numerous ethical questions. For example, should it be permissible for the couple who created the embryos to donate them to someone else? How long should frozen embryos be stored, and what should happen if the couple disagrees about their disposition? The predominant view is that the couple should be in control of the disposition of these embryos.
The moral status of the fetus is also relevant to the ethics of whether it is morally permissible for a pregnant woman to act, or fail to act, in a way thacould potentially harm her fetus. For instance, is it morally wrong for a pregnant woman to use drugs or alcohol, or to refuse medical treatment intended to benefit the fetus? Some argue that the fetus deserves protection from the harmful activities of its mother based on its own status as an actual or potential person. Others assert that it is not the moral status of the fetus itself that endows it with a right to protection from harm while in the mother's body, but rather its status as a "child-yet-to-be-born": if the mother intends to carry the child to term, then she has the moral responsibility to refrain from activities that may seriously harm the fetus, no matter what stage in its development.