A Fetus is not a Person: Morality of Abortion after Second Trimester

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Summary
  • Comparasion
  • Counter Argument
  • Conclusion


Abortion refers to the use of drugs or surgery to terminate pregnancy manually. Actually, it can be seen everywhere around the world. There are many reasons that induce women to do abortion, for example, rape or incest results in pregnancy, serious threat to the life of the pregnant woman, and severe fetal deformity. Since the topic of is abortion morally right or wrong is really argumentative, and hard to clarify at once. Therefore, I will use two articles “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion (and Postscript on Infanticide, 1982)” and “Abortion and the Concept of a Person” to help elaborating the ideas on this topic.

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Both articles have been arguing the criteria for determining what is and what is not a person. For example, in “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion (and Postscript on Infanticide, 1982)”, Mary Anne Warren lists five features to fulfill the personhood criterion (consciousness and in particular the capacity to feel pain, capacities for reasoning, self-motivated activity, the capacity of running a complex communication by whatever ways and the presence of self-concepts and self-awareness on individual or racial. Warren thinks that “genetic humanity is neither necessary nor sufficient for establishing that an entity is a person. Some human beings are not people, and there may well be people who are not human beings. A man or woman whose consciousness has been permanently obliterated but who remains alive is a human being which is no longer a person; defective human beings, with no appreciable mental capacity, are not and presumably never will be people; and fetus is a human being which is not yet a person, and which therefore cannot coherently be said to have full moral right.” (Warren 1982, 399-400). Therefore, she argues that abortion is justified as the fetus is not a person when it does not have the criteria of personhood.

In “Abortion and the Concept of a Person”, Janes English separated the personhood criterion into five sectors; (1) biological factors (having human features, breathing, eating, sleeping), (2) psychological factors (perception, having a concept of interests and wants, able to communicate and make use of tools), (3) rationality factors (reasoning, ability to make generalization and appropriate sacrifice for a better future), (4) social factors (ability to sympathy, encourage, love and work as a group), (5) legal factors (ability to sue and enter contacts, own property and be a citizen). English thinks that there are no necessary and sufficient conditions that claim a human life form in order to ensure the above five sectors constitute a person. A fetus lies in the penumbra where the concept of personhood is hard to apply. As if fetus is a person, some cases of abortion will be permissible. For example, self-defenses when pregnant woman’s well-being faced innocent treats, life expectation and mental or physical health. As if fetus is not a person, connection of our sentiments, such as sympathy, and attitudes would necessitate that we give moral thought to person-like beings. When it comes to the latest stages of pregnancy, abortion is mentally likened to murder.


In warren’s paper, she thinks that abortion is justified. As the unborn possess genetic humanity but not personhood and thus not fully human. If something is not fully human, then it has no moral standing, which means right to life. She eventually claimed that abortion is not murder. In English’s paper, she thinks that abortion is unjustified. As fetus is adequately like us to support the profession that it is just as incorrect to kill them as it is to kill us as the deprivation of valuable future. This claim does not need the unborn as a life. If it is just a potential life, that is good enough for this claim. When there are some exceptions listed, such as rape, threat to women’s life, anencephalic fetus and abortion during the first fourteen days after conception when there is an argument that the fetus is not an individual. We can see that; this argument does not make all abortion wrong since they may be overthrowing considerations in some cases.

Personal Position and Arguments

To a large extent, I agree to the view of Jane English. Therefore, some supporting reason will be explained as follow. First, I do agree that it is difficult to say which stage of fetus has the right to life when it is still not a person. According to English’s point of view, the concept of person included biological factors, psychological factors, rationality factors, social factors and legal factors. Although fetus does not have the rationality factors and social factors for sure, it is growing up day by day. There are three trimesters of how a baby develop, the first trimester calculated from week 1 to week 12, the second trimester calculated from week 13 to week 26 and the third trimester calculated from week 27 to the end of pregnancy. (Blocker, 2016) Actually, the basic structures of the fetus have started to develop into separate areas of head, chest, abdomen and the organs. 

The arms and legs will also be developed. When the pregnancy period past 12 weeks, the fetus has built up to around 4.4cm and may started to move by itself. The fingers and toes are seeable, and the heartbeat may be visible by the ultrasound. At this period of time, the fetus has only fulfilled the factors of biological. If we apply this stage to the concept of English, it is still not a person. Since the fetus is definitely unlike a person, it is hard to develop feelings and connections between pregnant woman and the fetus. Maybe there are some women even do not know they are pregnant. If someone does not want the fetus, maybe it is the best time to do abortion. As in the latest stages, the fetus would grow up more likely to a baby. It is more appropriate to respect the fetus. Do abortion or not is depends on the pregnant women, but everyone has different idea on the maturity of a fetus should have right to life. Throughout the process, we cannot provide a specific minimum number of months or days when a fetus becomes a person. Therefore, the question of which stage of fetus has the right to life when it is still not a person cannot be answered. However, I think it is immoral for a woman to abort when the fetus grows after second trimester.

Second, I agree with the point that the potentiality of personhood is important. There are degrees to the concept of potentiality of personhood. In the process of fetal growth, there is not a minimum number of months or days, which can be considered as a sufficient condition for the fetus to become a fully person. However, the more mature the fetus is, the higher potentiality of personhood it is. Let’s take a three months old fetus and an eight months old fetus as an example, a six months old fetus should be considered to have a higher potentiality of personhood than a three months old fetus. It is because the degree to which a fetus becomes a person comes with its biological growth, and the size and development of the fetus are increasing day by day. It can be said that the fetus as a biological organism gradually building up and becoming a person. Many people said that it is immoral to do abortion, because it is incorrect. Seldom of them can told why it is incorrect. In my opinion, when the potentiality of personhood is higher, pregnant woman and the people nearby will put more emotion on the fetus. At this time, the fetus will become more valuable. This is the reason why the pregnant women will be extremely grief if her fetus dies after a long period of nurture. Usually, when the development of a fetus stepping into second trimester. It is more likely to become an infant and easily to locate the heartbeat. The potentiality of personhood is becoming higher and higher; thus, I think it is immoral for a woman to abort when the fetus grows after second trimester.

Counter Argument

Some may say that fetus is still not a person, it may not have the right to life. Based on the text of Warren, she thinks that all fetuses are just potential people. Even newborn baby is still not a person in the first few months, as he/she lacks self-awareness, self-motivation, reasoning and communication skills. Under these conditions, even a fully developed fetus is more unlike a person than a mammal even a fish. Therefore, we cannot say that a newborn baby has more right to life than a newborn fish. However, this opinion seems ridiculous, as normal people believe that eating fish is morally reasonable and eating human is morally unreasonable. There is no one will choose to eat human in daily life under a normal situation. This can show that Warren’s criterion is problematic, as I do not agree that a fully developed human fetus has the same moral status and comparison point to a newborn fish. Therefore, it cannot convince me to agree the above argument. It did not prove that pregnant women can abort the fetus when they think it is not a person.

Some may say that pregnant women have the greatest autonomy to decide whether they should abort or not based on the principle of autonomy. Many people will quote Judith Jarvis Thomson’s view that mother has a higher right to survive than the fetus. However, when facing the choice of fetal life right and pregnant women autonomy, I think they should consider different situations and take the responsibility. For the protection of the fetal life right, it may have a higher priority than the right of women to decide for themselves. But, nowadays, people started to aware the personal consciousness, the right of privacy is valued. When the potential life conflicts with the interests of the pregnant women, it must be considered that the fetus is also a life rather than just an object. It is still inappropriate for women and the people around them to evade the fact or responsibility of conceiving their lives first, and to disregard the right to life of the fetus at all, and rashly remove a “life”. In Hong Kong, according to section 47A of the Offences Against the Person Ordinance (Chapter 212) (the Ordinance), a pregnancy may be terminated if two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith, that: Continuing the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman or of injury to her physical or mental health, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated; or there is a substantial risk that if the child were born, it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped. In view of the press releases from HKSAR, the number of legally terminated pregnancies in approved hospitals or clinics is decreasing, from 13,510 in 2006 to 9,890 in 2015. However, I think that legally aborting is still immoral for a woman to abort when the fetus grows after second trimester.


To sum up, abortion is a highly controversial topic, it is difficult to agree that which position is 100% correct. In my opinion, respecting life is important, people should not rationalize abortion easily. Every argument should be considered as serious as possible. With respect to life, the absolute rule is not to kill innocent, even to save the life of a pregnant woman. We cannot let abortion happen constantly.

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