The “Life of Mother Versus Life of Child” Situation Justifies Abortion?

  • Hendrik van der Breggen, Author
  • Retired Associate Professor of Philosophy, Providence

Is the general practice of abortion justified by the situation in which a mother’s life is threatened by the life of the unborn child?

Yes, possibly, as self-defense. But this situation is rare in North America. In fact, it seems to be so rare that it’s non-existent.

But don’t take my word for it. Consider what some experts have to say.

Kendra Kolb, MD, a neonatologist, stated this in 2019: “there is no medical reason why the life of the child must be directly and intentionally ended with an abortion procedure.”

Also in 2019, Omar L. Hamada, MD, Fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, stated this: “there is absolutely no medically justifiable reason for abortion (‘the intentional and elective targeted killing of an infant at any stage of pregnancy for matters of maternal choice or convenience’) to save the life of the mother. Period. End of story.”

Moreover, Dr. C. Everett Koop in 1980 (when he was Surgeon General of the United States) stated the following: “In my thirty-six years in pediatric surgery I have never known of one instance where the child had to be aborted to save the mother’s life.”

Furthermore, Dr. R. J. Hefferman of Tufts University stated this in 1951: “Anyone who performs a therapeutic abortion (for physical disease) is either ignorant of modern methods of treating the complications of pregnancy, or is unwilling to take time to use them.”

But, one might object at this juncture: Aren’t there situations in which a mother’s life is truly in jeopardy? Answer: Yes, but abortion isn’t needed here. Dr. Kolb explains thoroughly, so I’ll quote her extensively:

It is often said that abortion is sometimes medically necessary to protect the life or the health of the mother. This is simply not true. As a neonatologist, I am regularly consulted to advise mothers with high-risk pregnancies and I routinely care for their babies. I have also personally gone through two very difficult pregnancies, each requiring hospitalization. So I have great empathy and respect for all women who are pregnant, especially those with difficult or high-risk pregnancies. What women deserve to know, however is that even in the most high risk pregnancies, there is no medical reason why the life of the child must be directly and intentionally ended with an abortion procedure.

In situations where the mother’s life is truly in jeopardy, her pregnancy must end and the baby must be delivered. These situations occur in cases of mothers who develop dangerously high blood pressure, have decompensated heart disease, life-threatening diabetes, cancer, or a number of other very serious medical conditions. Some babies do need to be delivered before they are able to survive outside of the womb, which occurs around 22 to 24 weeks of life. These situations are considered a preterm delivery and not an abortion…

In addition to early delivery as a means of protecting the mother there are also times when it may be necessary to give a pregnant mother medical treatments which may tragically result in the loss of the baby. However, it is important to understand that these treatments are not abortions. For example, if a pregnant mother has cancer and chooses to undergo chemotherapy, that treatment may result in miscarriage. However, the treatment given is very different than abortion, as the purpose of the chemotherapy is not to kill the child.

Some will also confuse the necessary treatment for an ectopic pregnancy with an abortion. An ectopic pregnancy occurs when a preborn child [embryo] implants in the mother’s fallopian tubes or somewhere outside of the uterus. When a preborn child implants outside of the uterus, it is a hostile environment for the baby in which it cannot survive. And, sadly, removing the baby from the fallopian tube or abdominal cavity is necessary, as an ectopic pregnancy will inevitably end in a miscarriage and may threaten the mother’s life. These situations are devastating. However, they are not considered abortions.

Abortion unnecessarily ends lives of children and may also result in serious medical and psychological risks to women. Physicians have an ethical duty to deliver expert care for both patients: the mother and the child. A mother’s life is always of paramount importance, but abortion is never medically necessary to protect her life or health.

Thus, the life-of-mother-versus-life-of-child situation seems very much not to justify abortion. It might justify some abortions theoretically/hypothetically in terms of self-defense, but in fact it isn’t needed. As a justification of the general situation, it’s a red herring – i.e., not relevant and distracting.

Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is a retired associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College in Otterburne, Manitoba. The views expressed in Apologia do not always reflect the views of Providence.