Abortion for the Health and Life of the Mother

Various “hard cases” are often mentioned by the pro-abortionists as a justification for abortion. They argue that if abortion is illegal, we will have all these horrific cases taking place. Therefore abortion must always remain legal and freely available.

The two most common hard cases thrown up are those of rape and incest. I have discussed these cases elsewhere, so I will not elaborate upon them here: billmuehlenberg.com/2008/08/19/abortion-and-hard-cases/

But there is a third hard case which is often raised, and that is when the life of the mother is at risk. It is argued that abortion must remain legal or at least can be justified if it is needed to safeguard the health and life of the mother. But there are a number of problems with this position, so this also needs to be critically examined.

The first problem is simply this: threats to the “health” of the mother need to be carefully understood and delineated. That is, not every health risk is a life-threatening risk. So getting this distinction right at the outset is crucial. As Randy Alcorn explains, “The mother’s life and the mother’s health are usually two distinct considerations. A woman with toxaemia will have adverse health reactions and considerable inconvenience, including probably needing to lie down for much of her pregnancy. This is a difficulty, but not normally a threat to her life. Hence, an abortion for the sake of ‘health’ would not be life-saving, but life-taking, since her life is not in jeopardy in the first place.”

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However, in some cases, such as an ectopic (tubal) pregnancy, or cancerous uterus, there is a real life-threatening risk, and something must be done. If not, most likely both mother and baby will die. In an ectopic pregnancy, where the baby is not developing in the womb but elsewhere (often in the fallopian tube), the baby is usually dead already or is pretty well guaranteed to die anyway.

Thus some action is necessary, to save at least one party. But this then is not really an abortion. The clear intention is to save the mother, not kill the baby. So it is probably best not to even include this as a reason for an abortion, since the intent is not to kill a baby (which is exactly what an abortion is all about), but to save the life of at least the mother.

As one medical doctor and ethicist explains, after discussing the cases of ectopic pregnancy and severe eclampsia or high blood pressure: “Sadly, treatment of these conditions at present involves termination of the pregnancy. This is not because the woman’s life is more valuable. It is ethically justified because the child has no chance of survival whether you try to save the mother’s life or not (it cannot survive outside the womb, and it cannot survive if it stays in the womb and the mother dies). The best outcome possible in this situation is that the mother’s life is preserved.”

Philosopher Francis Beckwith explains the ethical course of action here: “First, when pregnancy endangers a mother’s life, medical personnel should try to save the lives of both mother and child. Second, if that is not possible, the physician must choose the course of action that best upholds the sanctity of human life.” In cases like an ectopic pregnancy, “the physician must save the mother’s life even if it results in the death of the unborn. His intention is not to kill the child but to save the mother. But since saving both is impossible and it is better that one should live rather than two die, ‘abortion’ to save the mother’s life in this case is justified.”

And there are very few other real conditions where an abortion is needed to save the life of the mother (in addition to the three cases I have already just mentioned). One doctor who was the director of maternal-fetal medicine at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles has written about his experiences in this area. He says:

“It should be emphasized how rare these conditions are. Our obstetric service in the Los Angeles area has been the largest in the United States for most of the last fifteen years, averaging fifteen thousand to sixteen thousand births per year. Our institution serves a catchment for all high-risk deliveries in an area with thirty thousand deliveries per year. Excluding cases that have been diagnosed late in pregnancy, we do not see more than one or two cases per year that pose this degree of risk of maternal mortality; these are exceedingly rare conditions. This rarity does not diminish the tragic dimension of such cases, but the cases are seen in perspective when their numbers are compared to the total number of abortions performed.”

Often it is suggested that late-term abortions are justified because they are required to preserve the health and life of the mother. “However, the research suggests that most late-term abortions are just regular abortions performed late because of delayed diagnosis of pregnancy.”

And even some former abortionists admit to this. Consider the words of former abortionist Mary Davenport. In a paper entitled “Is Late-Term Abortion Ever Necessary?” she says this: “The very fact that the baby of an ill mother is viable raises the question of why, indeed, it is necessary to perform an abortion to end the pregnancy. With any serious maternal health problem, termination of pregnancy can be accomplished by inducing labor or performing a cesarean section, saving both mother and baby. If a mother needs radiation or chemotherapy for cancer, the mother’s treatment can be postponed until viability, or regimens can be selected that will be better tolerated by the unborn baby.”

In sum, let me again cite Alcorn: “When he was U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. C. Everett Koop stated that in thirty-six years as a pediatric surgeon, he was never aware of a single situation in which a preborn child’s life had to be taken in order to save the mother’s life. He said the use of this argument to justify abortion was a ‘smoke screen’.”

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8 Replies to “Abortion for the Health and Life of the Mother”

  1. HI Bill,
    I would like to bring one type of to my mind justified abortion. In an Islamic society a woman found pregnant not by her husband or single, for whatever reason, including rape, she is liable to be stoned to death or killed by other means, in which case both the mother and the baby dies. This is not to be regarded as a rarity even in Western countries. I have read of cases where the father had impregnated his own daughter and then had her stoned to death or killed by other means to rescue the “family honor”.
    Joost Gemeren

  2. Thanks Joost, but I am not quite with you here. There are all sorts of reasons why a person might be put to death in Islam. Becoming a Christian is one of them. Should a person refuse to convert to Christianity therefore because death might be the outcome? Killing a baby to stay alive simply shifts the problem around. Instead of Muslim maniacs doing the killing, a mother in a tragic situation does the killing. As the old saying goes, “hard cases make for bad laws”.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. A couple of years ago in Darwin Royal Hospital a mother gave birth by means of a caesar to a big healthy baby girl after carrying her to full term. The doctors were surprised to see this girl had developed not in the tubes but in the actual ovary. This wasn’t detected at all through the pregnancy but this happy mother & father may have had a different outcome if it had of been detected.
    Yvonne Pratt

  4. Regarding cancer during pregnancy. There are studies that show that the womb is a rather protected place and that when the mother receives chemotherapy that the effects of it do not seem to harm the baby at all.
    http://www.cancerinpregnancy.org/

    Yet another nail in the coffin of the abortion premise. For a long time I was for abortion only in the life of the mother is in danger, but after doing research I have found that to be not needed. With the massive advances in medical science, we are seeing the standard abortion arguments being shown to be scientifically wrong, and yet we get blamed so much for being “anti-science”.

    Ian Nairn

  5. If I understand correctly, an abortion can be performed if 2 doctors are prepared to sign that there is a (possibly temporary) risk to the mental health of the mother. If that is the main justification for the thousands of abortions performed, I am forced to one of two conclusions: either there is a mammoth mental health problem among pregnant women, or the doctors are falsifying the documentation. Surely the medical profession would not do that, would they? So it must be a mental health problem. In that case, why isn’t there a massive program to combat that problem?

    John Bennett

  6. The principle of double effect in Catholic ethics addresses this issue in depth.
    Julian DeSouza

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