Public reason and prenatal moral status

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This paper provides a new analysis and critique of Rawlsian public reason’s handling of the abortion question. It is often claimed that public reason is indeterminate on abortion, because it cannot say enough about prenatal moral status, or give content to the (allegedly) political value which Rawls calls ‘respect for human life’. I argue that public reason requires much greater argumentative restraint from citizens debating abortion than critics have acknowledged. Beyond the preliminary observation that fetuses do not meet the criteria of political personhood, I contend, public reasoners may say nothing about prenatal moral status. Indeed, respect for human life (as distinct from respect for persons) is not, I show, a genuine political value, whose interpretation lies within public reason’s remit. This fact does not, however, prevent deliberators from drawing determinate conclusions regarding the law of abortion. Instead, I show, public reason has radically permissive implications for the legal regulation of feticide, inclining heavily towards the view that abortion should be allowed with little or no qualification, right until birth. I end by giving grounds for thinking that, even if the argumentative restraint which public reason enjoins over prenatal moral status does not generate indeterminacy, it is nonetheless objectionable.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23-52
Number of pages30
JournalThe Journal of Ethics
Issue number1
Early online date31 Jan 2015
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2015


  • Abortion
  • Moral Status
  • Political Liberalism
  • Public Reason
  • John Rawls

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy


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