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May 26, 1978

The Unborn: Human Values and Responsibilities

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Religion, the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va.

JAMA. 1978;239(21):2263-2267. doi:10.1001/jama.1978.03280480055021

RECENT controversies about abortion, fetal experimentation, and the nontreatment of seriously diseased newborns raise a recurrent set of underlying questions: Are the unborn human beings? What is a human being and what is its value? What are our responsibilities toward beings whose human status is in doubt? This essay analyzes the interconnections between these questions and states as well as defends one of two alternative responses to them.

One is never quite sure of the right sequence of these questions. The more traditional order, and the one followed here, is to begin with human status and to move to responsibilities or rights. But it is probably true that our definitions of "human being"—or even our choice of alternative basic terms such as "person" or "unborn child"—are deliberate and will allow us to support whatever moral responsibilities we wish to advocate. Yet, whether we start with asking who is a human