Pre-Post-Natal Harm?

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Let’s assume that poisoning your child is wrong, whether it’s wilfully or negligently done. Let’s further posit, as many people do, that a foetus has broadly comparable moral standing to that of a baby after birth. Some possible implications...?

The baby was delivered by caesarean section prematurely in April 2008 and died 19 minutes after birth.

Six months later Kimbrough was arrested at home and charged with ‘chemical endangerment’ of her unborn child on the grounds that she had taken drugs during the pregnancy – a claim she has denied.

Now, moral equivalence needn’t entail legal equivalence; as the linked article notes, a possible perverse consequence of criminalisation is that it might lead women to opt for abortions in order to avoid the risk of prosecution. Moreover, one can accept that there could be prima facie moral wronging of a foetus when its mother’s choices put it at risk, and then hold that this prima facie wrongdoing is overridden by, for example, the mother’s interests in her personal autonomy. At any rate, explaining the dispute in terms of ‘culture wars’ isn’t altogether enlightening; if a foetus does have comparable moral standing to a baby’s (and that is a hard question in both morals and metaphysics), then the subsequent reasoning is by no means straightforwardly mistaken.

For a member of the (sometimes ghoulishly detached) tribe of moral philosophers, the really interesting aspect might be that actions allegedly taken during pregnancy allegedly led to early death following birth. (In the quoted case this was birth brought on through surgical intervention, but the same need not be true in all cases.) That puts such cases into another tricky class: those in which you can doubt that a foetus has any moral status whatsoever (including, for example, doubting that it has any entitlement to a ‘future like ours’), and potentially still conclude that the mother’s actions caused the early death of a being which has moral standing. There are various ways in which that might be laid out, though no obviously unproblematic choice as far as I can see: maybe the baby is wronged through damage to the foetus which is the cause of the baby’s death, or maybe damage to the foetus is or becomes harm to the baby. When it comes to working out just when and how any possible wronging occurs, I suspect that transgenerational ethics, which routinely has to deal with our responsibilities towards the presently nonexistent, might in some ways be the best source of guidance.

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