The fetus is not a part of the mother’s body

fetus at 20 weeks

A child in utero at 20 weeks.

One of the moral issues brought up in the debate about abortion is that of bodily autonomy. Some persons suppose that the mother has the right to terminate her pregnancy on the basis that it is “her body, her choice.”

Of course, there are two ways that one could understand this reference to the body of the mother. On one reading, the fetus might be taken to be a part of the woman’s body that she can dispose of at will, just like we are free to cut our hair or trim our fingernails. On another reading, the fetus is not considered part of the woman’s body, but since it depends on the resources of her body for its development, the woman is at liberty to reject this dependency if she should find it burdensome or unpleasant.

For the purposes of this post, I will consider the first of these readings. Is there any plausibility to the claim that the fetus is a part of the mother’s body? After all, it is located within her and it is connected to the other parts of her body in a very intimate way. Is that enough for ascribing to it parthood?

I should think not, and to make the argument convincing we have to get clearer on what it means for something to be a part of our body. Physical attachment is clearly one condition for parthood, but it is not a sufficient condition. Fleas, ticks, leeches, viruses, and other sorts of intruders are physically attached to my body; that does not make them part of my body. Indeed, parasites of these sorts are considered parasites precisely because they take advantage of my body’s resources through physical attachment without being a natural part of it.

On the contrary, I should think that proper parthood has to do with a teleological contribution to the functioning of the whole. My heart, my liver, my legs, my arms, and the rest are parts of my body because — when they are functioning properly, anyway — they contribute to the general functionality and flourishing of my body as a whole, for which task they must obviously be physically attached to each other. For this reason, too, a part is something that can remain indefinitely within the whole so long as it continues to function properly. Thus, my heart can remain indefinitely within my body so long as it continues to function properly; it only needs to be removed if its functionality is compromised in some way, if it can no longer contribute to the general flourishing of the whole because it no longer does its job.

It should be clear that the fetus does not satisfy these conditions, and so cannot be considered a part of the woman’s body. Beyond the fact that it does not have entirely the same DNA as the mother, and beyond the fact that it might even be of the opposite sex, most importantly the fetus does not contribute to the general functionality of the woman’s body. On the contrary, the fetus depends on the body and takes in resources from it. Moreover, the fetus cannot remain indefinitely within the body of the mother precisely because of the trajectory its development is supposed to take: the fetus is continually growing and thus cannot be housed indefinitely within the mother’s body, a fine piece of evidence, if ever there were any, that it is not properly called a part of her body.

In light of these remarks, it is obvious enough (to my mind, anyway) that the fetus is not a part of the mother’s body. Abortion is not like a woman’s cutting her hair or trimming her nails. On the contrary, in abortion she has to do with another being with a life of its own, perhaps even with another person, who has to be approached on its own terms and treated in accordance with whatever dignity and value is proper to it.


About Steven

I study theology and philosophy without ceasing. I have a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University (2013), and an M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary (2016). I am currently an adjunct professor of philosophy at Grand Canyon University and a Ph.D. student at Fuller Theological Seminary.
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