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Part 18 What if the mother’s life is in danger?

The pro-life position is both the mother and the child are worthy of protection.  However, there are rare circumstances when the life of the mother and child are in mortal danger.  This time I will use an article by Steve Wagner, from Stand to Reason, to answer this question.

What if the Mother’s Life is in Danger[1]?” Is abortion always wrong?

Key Tactical Point

Just as there is an underlying test of your compassion when people bring up abortion in the case of rape, when someone asks “Would you say that abortion is wrong when used to save the mother’s life?” they are testing whether you are a reasonable, compassionate human being. It’s critical that you pass this test in order to maintain credibility and have further opportunity to make the case for the unborn. But it’s also critical that you use this opportunity to clarify the moral logic of the pro-life position.

My First Response

”What life threatening conditions are you referring to?”

(They will likely not have any idea; you can then offer them the following helpful information.)

A Thorough Response

Note: This response clarifies the moral logic of the pro-life position and explains how that position should be applied to ectopic pregnancy.

“When the motherʹs life is truly in danger, we must treat both the mother and child as human beings worthy of protection, for that is what they are. I’m aware of only one medical circumstance when abortion is necessary to save the mother’s life: ectopic pregnancy. In an ectopic pregnancy, the newly conceived human being implants on the wall of the fallopian tube (or some other tissue) instead of on the wall of the uterus. As the embryonic human being grows, the fallopian tube will rupture causing severe blood loss and probably death. In these cases, there is no way to save the child’s life. If we do nothing, both human beings will die. Because we believe it is better to save one life than to lose two, we remove the child (causing his death) and save the mother. The death of the child is an unintended, although foreseen, consequence. So abortion in this instance is the killing of an innocent human being WITH proper justification. Notice though, this is not because the child is not human, but rather because the child is going to die no matter what. The childʹs death is unavoidable, so protecting the mother becomes our primary concern.”

Pass the Test of Compassion

The response above also passes the test of compassion that is involved with this objection. You are not more concerned about the fetus than the mother. You are equally concerned with both. To further show your views on the value of the mother are no different than the average person’s, you may want to make reference to other life threats (see below) and the dystocia case (also below).

One Key Distinction: Life Versus Health

See the article entitled, Is Abortion Legal Through All Nine Months for Any Reason? for a review of the legal importance of distinguishing between life and health threats.

Should we allow abortion for a threat to the health of the mother? If so, we are placing the health of one human being (the mother) over the life of another (the child). This seems clearly wrong. There is no other circumstance in which we would allow someone to kill an innocent person to protect herself from a health threat. We don’t allow those who are exposed to disease to kill those who exposed them, do we? No. When someone’s health is threatened by the existence of another, we attempt to remove the one threatening and treat the one threatened. We can do this in the case of the pregnant woman whose health is affected by her child. We can remove the child (as soon as possible for him to live) and treat the mother of her condition.

Threats That Are Not Threats

We agree that there are a number of conditions that threaten the pregnant woman’s life. But with many of these threats, we can treat the mother and save the child:

  • Preeclampsia (Toxemia): Occurs in 1 in approximately every 12 pregnancies (5% – 8%). This is a condition of swelling, elevated blood pressure, and protein in the urine. This condition can be effectively treated either by delivery (after 36 weeks) or by bed rest (prior to 36 weeks). Delivery can also be attempted after 24 weeks with reasonable assurance the fetus will live. In some cases delivery prior to 24 weeks may be necessary although the likelihood of the child’s survival is reduced.
  • Eclampsia (Toxemia with Seizures): Occurs in 1 in approximately 2000 pregnancies (.05%). This condition is marked by seizures that are caused by pregnancy (as opposed to some other known factor). Treatment is the same as for Preeclampsia, but this condition is more severe, usually requiring delivery either naturally or by C-section.
  • Placenta Previa: Occurs in 1 in 200 pregnancies (.5%). The placenta covers all or part of the cervix. Although this condition has the potential to be life-threatening, with proper medical management (usually bed rest, but sometimes hospitalization), both mother and child can be protected from harm. In the case of an early placenta previa, sometimes the baby does not survive. There is no moral wrong here; this is simply a specific case of miscarriage, in which no person causes or intends the child’s death. Click on babycenter.com. Helpful information on placenta previa, including drawings, can be found on this page as well as the March of Dimes page linked under Placental Abruption, below.
  • Placental Abruption: Occurs in 1 in 100 pregnancies (1%). The placenta detaches from the uterine wall. If not treated, this can harm both mother and child.  See marchofdimes.com

For more information about pregnancy risks, see Medline Plus: Health Problems in Pregnancy

One Other Threat Worth Mentioning: Dystocia

Prior to the turn of the twentieth century, one type of dystocia (any case of abnormal or difficult labor) – when the baby’s head is too large to pass through the mother’s pelvis – presented pregnant women in developed countries with an agonizing choice to save her child (by undergoing a dangerous and probably lethal Caesarean Section) or to save her own life (by undergoing a craniotomy operation that crushed the baby’s skull). Even today, this choice may still be presented to some women in developing countries where C-sections are not routine. Although some dispute whether craniotomy is truly necessary, let’s assume it is for the sake of the argument. What if there truly was a case where we could save either mother or child, but where one must die to save the other.

Are There Other Threats to the Mother’s Life that Warrant Abortion?

In most other cases of life endangerment, we can treat both mother and child. For example, a pregnant woman with cancer can be treated while the baby tolerates the chemotherapy given to the mother. See Thomas Murphy Goodwinʹs excellent article on high-risk pregnancy management.

Go to part 19 here


[1] “What if the mother’s life is in danger?” © 2005 Steve Wagner www.str.org

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