Abortion, Pregnancy Loss, & Subjective Fetal Personhood

80 Pages Posted: 1 Jun 2022 Last revised: 13 Sep 2023

See all articles by Greer Donley

Greer Donley

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law

Jill Wieber Lens

University of Arkansas - School of Law

Date Written: June 1, 2022


Long-standing dogma dictates that recognizing pregnancy loss threatens abortion rights—acknowledging that miscarriage and stillbirth involve the loss of something valuable, the theory goes, creates a slippery slope to fetal personhood. For decades, antiabortion advocates have capitalized on this tension and weaponized the grief that can accompany pregnancy loss in their efforts to legislate fetal personhood and end abortion rights. In response, abortion rights advocates have at times fought legislative efforts to support those experiencing pregnancy loss and, more recently, remained silent, alienating those who suffer a miscarriage or stillbirth.

This Article argues that this perceived tension can be reconciled through the concept of subjective and relational fetal value. The Article derives this concept from pregnancy loss research, which demonstrates that a pregnant person’s attachment to their fetus is based on myriad individualized factors. Attachment in pregnancy is neither fixed nor biological and therefore does not support the antiabortion concept of personhood-at-conception. We suggest that tort law offers a way forward: a model of recognizing subjective, relational fetal value that does not collapse into personhood-at-conception. Thus, abortion rights advocates can recognize and support those experiencing pregnancy loss without ceding ground on abortion rights.

Most importantly, this Article proposes that recognition of pregnancy loss within abortion narratives will better position the abortion rights movement for a post-Roe America in which abortion and pregnancy loss are inexorably intertwined. Without legal abortion access, women will turn to self-managed abortion. But because complications from self-managed abortion are indistinguishable from miscarriage, investigation and criminalization of pregnancy loss will increase as a mechanism to enforce abortion laws. Further, restrictions on abortion will limit medical treatments for pregnancy loss. Looking forward, we argue that an abortion rights narrative that can join forces with the pregnancy loss community by acknowledging subjective fetal value will be less alienating to many Americans and reflect nuanced views on the meaning of pregnancy. Last, appreciating the blurriness between abortion and pregnancy loss will help normalize and destigmatize all pregnancy endings that do not result in a live birth—abortion, stillbirth, and miscarriage—benefitting all pregnant people.

Funding Information: We received no funding for the completion of this project.

Conflict of Interests: No conflicts of interest to report.

Keywords: Abortion, pregnancy loss, fetal personhood, miscarriage, stillbirth, subjective fetal value, Dobbs, Roe, reproductive justice, reproductive rights, feminist legal theory, gender and the law, Fourteenth Amendment

Suggested Citation

Donley, Greer and Lens, Jill Wieber, Abortion, Pregnancy Loss, & Subjective Fetal Personhood (June 1, 2022). Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 75, p. 1649, 2022, U. of Pittsburgh Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2022-16, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4125492

Greer Donley (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law ( email )

3900 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.law.pitt.edu/people/greer-donley

Jill Wieber Lens

University of Arkansas - School of Law ( email )

260 Waterman Hall
Fayetteville, AR 72701
United States

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