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Misunderstanding moral status: a reply to Robinson
  1. Giulia Cavaliere1,
  2. Francesca Cesarano2
  1. 1 Dickson Poon School of Law, King's College London, London, UK
  2. 2 Department of Philosophy, Università Vita Salute San Raffaele, Milano, Italy
  1. Correspondence to Dr Giulia Cavaliere, Dickson Poon School of Law, King's College London, London, London, UK; giulia.cavaliere{at}

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In Pregnancy and superior moral status: A proposal for two thresholds of personhood, Robinson argues that pregnant women are unique beings with superior moral status (MS) to that of other adult human beings. Robinson’s defence of this view relies on metaphysical and moral claims. The first set of claims concerns the ontological status of the pregnant woman, whom she considers a ‘unique organism’,‘more than just one person’and ‘numerically increased’.1 The second set of claims concerns the ‘superior’ MS of the pregnant woman. In this commentary, we address this second set of claims and argue that Robinson’s view rests on a misunderstanding of the concept of MS and its role in supplying reasons for action (and forbearance from action). While we welcome the conclusion of Robinson’s argument—which we take to be that pregnant women ought to be treated with more consideration—on an appropriate understanding of MS, her argument does not yield that conclusion at all. We feel strongly that medical ethics needs to be grounded in good philosophy and worry that too much of the literature falls short of this ideal. As such, the spirit in which we write this commentary is that of constructive criticism.

One plus one equals one plus one and the grounds of MS

The philosophical literature on the grounds of MS essentially addresses the question of what properties (Ps) determine whether an agent (A) has MS.1 Examples of Ps are: sophisticated cognitive capacities,2 such as the capacity to value, being self-aware or rational, or more controversially, …

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  • Contributors Both the authors contributed equally to this manuscript.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • i For threshold conceptions of MS, what matters is whether A possesses sufficient P to reach the threshold. For scalar conceptions of MS, what matters is how much P A possesses or how well A can display P.

  • ii Some consider the possession of rudimentary cognitive capacities or the faculty to develop such capacities sufficient to confer full moral status.

  • iii It is relevant to Robinson’s view that the pregnant organism is female and a human being.

  • iv We owe this and other examples to Todd Karhu.

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