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Biological or Moral Being?

THE question, ``When does human life begin?'' has played a key role in the discussions about the abortion issue. However, despite its appearance in the debate about abortion, most recently in the Missouri statute declared constitutional by the Supreme Court, its meaning has not been made clear. The anti-abortionists frequently contend that ``human life begins at the moment of conception.'' The pro-choice camp vehemently disagrees. But it is clear that those on the pro-choice side do not mean to deny that the fetus is both alive and of the human species (not another species). So, what do proponents of the woman's right to choose intend to deny when they deny that human life begins at conception?

As the philosopher Mary Anne Warren has indicated, ``human'' is sometimes used to denote genetic or biological humanity, i.e., possession of a human genetic code and thus membership in the human species. On other occasions ``human'' is used to refer to moral humanity, i.e., to indicate that the being referred to possesses the full moral status of a person - full rights, including the right to life.

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Thus, the issue isn't whether the fetus is genetically human. Those with even a sketchy knowledge of biology realize that the fetus possesses a human genetic code. The issue is whether the fetus is morally human, i.e., a person with full moral standing and rights.

When seen against this backdrop, the standard arguments on both sides seem lame. To anti-abortionists who insist that the fetus is morally human from the moment of conception simply because at this point the unborn being acquires a human genetic code (and is therefore ``a human life'') we can ask, ``But what is your basis for assuming that any being which possesses a human genetic code is automatically a possessor of full moral status and rights? Doesn't a being's state of development, i.e., what it is and what it has not yet become, affect its moral standing? If not, why not?''

To pro-choice advocates who insist that the fetus is morally human only at viability (when the fetus can exist outside the mother's body) we can ask, ``But how could viability be the point at which the fetus acquires full moral status since viability is principally determined by the current state of medical technology (how advanced are the methods, techniques, and equipment used to keep premature births alive)? In other words, how can the moral status and rights of the fetus be a function of such factors since they are not characteristics of the fetus itself, but are external factors?''

To pro-choice proponents who say that the fetus becomes morally human at birth, we can ask, ``But how could birth be the point at which moral humanity is conferred since the principal change which occurs at birth is simply that the fetus moves from inside the mother's body to outside of it? How could such a mere change of location make all the moral difference?''

The question of whether (or at what point) the fetus acquires moral humanity is complex and difficult. To answer it well, we must realize it isn't first a biological issue - everyone knows a fetus is human life. Rather, we must see that it is a moral issue - a question of what makes a being a member of the moral community (a morally valuable being with rights). It is a question of what the biological events during the gestation process, including conception, viability, and birth, mean in moral terms, and why. This moral question has yet to be formulated clearly, or answered cogently.