BBC - Ethics - Abortion: When is the foetus 'alive'? (2023)

When does a foetus get the right to life?

BBC - Ethics - Abortion: When is the foetus 'alive'? (1)Conception is one stage that is easy to identify ©

Those in favour of abortion often suggest the debate centres upon when the foetus becomes sufficiently human to have the right to life.

Opponents believe the foetus is never anything other than human from conception, and therefore has a right to life from this time.

It's a key point in the debate, especially for those involved in drafting laws regulating abortion.

Spelling out the problem

Everyone agrees that adult human beings have the right to life. Some people would say that the fertilised cell resulting from conception does not have the right to life. Therefore the right to life is acquired sometime in between those two points, and the big question is 'when?'

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It's sometimes put in another way as the question "when does life begin?" referring to the sort of life that we regard as precious.

A strange idea

Unfortunately there's no agreement in medicine, philosophy or theology as to what stage of foetal development should be associated with the right to life.

That isn't surprising, because the idea that there is a precise moment when a foetus gets the right to live, which it didn't have a few moments earlier, feels very strange.

And when you look closely at each of the suggested dates, they do seem either arbitrary or not precise enough to decide whether the unborn should have the right to live.

Nonetheless, as a matter of practicality many abortion laws lay down a stage of pregnancy after which abortion is unlawful (because the foetus has a right to life), and the dates chosen are usually based on viability.

Moral issues

Because of the difficulty of deciding at what stage a foetus becomes a being with the right to life, some people argue that we should always err in favour of an earlier date.

They say that if we don't know whether the foetus has reached a stage where it has the right to life, we should assume that it does have the right to life, as this will do least damage to the foetus.

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Some people say that if the foetus is not a person, then abortion deserves no condemnation. This oversimplifies the issues. Even if the foetus is not a human being, it is clearly regarded by most people and most societies as something special that should not be casually discarded.


The stages of foetal development

The stages of foetal development

Various points have been suggested as the point that the foetus gets the right to life. Here are some of those points and the arguments for and criticisms that have been made of choosing that point of development:


The 'Catechism of the Catholic Church' states that the embryo must be treated as a person from conception and so do many others who oppose abortion...

  • the moment of fertilisation is an entirely logical point to choose as the beginning of human life
  • it's one of the few points that isn't arbitrary or difficult to judge, as an egg is either fertilised or not
  • at this point the fertilised egg has begun to develop into a separate and unique human being
  • at this point the fertilised egg contains the full genetic code of a human being
    • not a very good argument, since so do all the cells of the body
  • It's the beginning of a process of development and maturation that doesn't end until the individual naturally dies, or is killed
  • but it only marks the beginning of biological life
  • some people believe that biological life is not sufficient to give the foetus the right to life


This is the moment when the fertilised egg is implanted in the womb. This happens about a week after conception.

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  • this point is easy to identify
  • but this point is just as arbitrary as any other date


This is when the foetus first moves in the womb. This happens about 16 to 17 weeks after fertilisation.

  • the idea came from a now abandoned Christian theory that this was the moment that the foetus got its soul
    • for example St. Augustine made a distinction between embryo inanimatus, not yet endowed with a soul, and embryo animatus, endowed with a soul
  • without "ensoulment", quickening does not seem to have any merit as the start time for human rights
  • medically, the time of quickening is influenced by irrelevant factors, such as the number of previous pregnancies that the mother has had

Aristotle's theory

Aristotle suggested 40 days (males), 90 days (females) was the time.

  • these are purely arbitrary times - and there's certainly no reason for males and females to get the right to life at different stages of development
  • the idea itself came out of Aristotle's three-stage theory of life: vegetable, animal, rational. The vegetable stage was reached at conception, the animal at 'animation', and the rational soon after live birth.

Tissue separation

This is the time when tissues in the foetus separate into different types.

  • this covers a lengthy period of time
  • tissue type separation doesn't seem to have any obvious moral - so the choice of this as the key date is probably because the increasingly human appearance of the foetus causes us to feel increasingly protective of the foetus

Brain activity

Some people believe life begins at the first sign of brain activity.

  • this is a logical point, as it marks a necessary state for many of the characteristics that some people think a 'moral person' has to possess
  • but brain activity at this stage is no more than a precondition - it doesn't demonstrate that the foetus is actually 'conscious'

Viability of the foetus

Other people take the view that life begins at the stage when the foetus could survive outside the womb.

  • this is the most common criterion used in drafting laws regulating abortion
  • whether a foetus can survive outside the womb depends on:
    • the state of medical science
    • the medical facilities available at a particular location
    • the competence or willingness of the mother (or some other care-giver)
    • the gender of the foetus
    • the race of the foetus
  • there is something unsatisfactory about a being's rights being determined by its sex or race, the state of medical science, the state of medical facilities at a particular location, or the type of mother it has


  • This appears to be a clear and unambiguous date, but there is disagreement on the point at when a baby is actually born. Is it:
    • when part of the baby is outside the mother's body?
    • when the whole baby is outside the mother's body?
    • or when the placenta separates from the womb and the foetus has to rely on its own resources to keep alive?
  • Some people say that it's odd that a being's right to life should depend on whether a being is located inside or outside the womb
    • But they miss the essential point which is that at birth the baby begins to exist independently of the mother


(Video) Abortion rights around the world - Global News Podcast, BBC World Service

Vagueness is a virtue

As we've seen, there are difficulties with choosing a precise point when the unborn gets the right to live.

Although it's uncomfortable to be so imprecise, the right answer may lie in accepting that there are degrees of right to life, and the foetus gets a stronger right to life as it develops.

This answer has the value of reflecting the way many people feel about things when they consider abortion: the more developed the foetus, the more unhappy they are about aborting it, and the more weight they give the rights of the foetus in comparison with the rights of the mother.

This view is sometimes called 'gradualism'.


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