Medical Knowledge Regarding Status of the Fetus

However much information biomedical investigation may provide regarding pregnancy, fetal development, and abortion, it cannot provide a determination as to when human life begins. The answer to that question—which deals with the moral status of the fetus—is arrived at by a process that entwines medical facts with experiences, values, religious and philosophical beliefs and attitudes, perceptions of meaning, and moral argument. Such a process extends beyond the special competency of medicine. For example, medicine has never had the ability to establish when ensoulment—an ancient criterion involving the infusion of the soul into the body of the fetus, thus conferring moral status on the fetus—occurs. Similarly there is disagreement among some physicians over the moral status of the fetus and the permissibility of abortion.

There is some confusion about the definition of abortion. Spontaneous abortion, or what is commonly termed a miscarriage, refers to a spontaneous loss of a pregnancy before viability (at about twenty-four weeks of gestation). Losses after that point in a pregnancy are termed preterm deliveries, or, in the case of the delivery of a fetus who has already died, stillbirths. The terminology commonly used in relation to induced abortion is different. Here, viability is not the key point. Rather, any termination of a pregnancy by medical or surgical means is termed an abortion, regardless of the stage of the pregnancy.

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