Abortion and “Health of the Mother”

Is it possible to be consistently pro-life while still making an exception for abortion in cases when the life of the mother is at risk? What's your perspective on this difficult ethical question?

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First, let’s be absolutely clear what we are (and what we’re not) talking about here. When someone hears about a situation in which a pregnancy is terminated, what often comes to mind is elective abortion, which entails the purposeful killing of a preborn baby for the sake of terminating an unwanted pregnancy. In no way and under no circumstance does Focus on the Family view elective abortion as a morally acceptable choice. However, we would not consider it immoral for a woman to accept treatment that is necessary to save her life, but which may end the life of her preborn child. Let us explain.

As we see it, this is one of those rare, agonizing situations in which there are no simple or easy answers. What should a pregnant woman do if her physician advises her that carrying her baby to term will place her own life at serious risk (as is the case in many instances of ectopic pregnancy)? Our initial reaction would be to tell this mom to seek a second opinion about her condition from a different doctor, preferably one with strong pro-life convictions. If the diagnosis remains unchanged, then we would have to concede – though sadly and reluctantly – that this may be a case in which it would be morally acceptable for the mother to opt for treatment that may end the life of her preborn child.

Why do we say this? Because we recognize that what this dilemma really involves is a conscious choice between two equally precious lives. If the baby lives, the mother dies, and vice versa. In some situations, such as a tubal ectopic pregnancy, both will die if the pregnancy progresses and no one intervenes. Is it our place to say that this woman – a woman who may be someone else’s mother, wife or daughter – must die in this situation? What kind of secondary factors and circumstances should guide us in making this terrible choice? Obviously there is no easy solution. Either option carries painful and regrettable outcomes for everyone concerned.

We would add a crucial distinction here between therapeutic treatment and abortion: While a preborn baby may not survive treatment for an ectopic pregnancy, the intent and goal is to save the mom’s life, not to end the life of the child. Such therapeutic action is never done simply to take the preborn child’s life – the same cannot be said for an elective abortion. Indeed, the often-used term “therapeutic abortion” is a misnomer since ending the life of a child is not a therapeutic act and is never, in itself, necessary and sufficient to save the mother’s life.

Please don’t misunderstand. We’re aware that there are many people who feel strongly that no procedure should ever be undertaken that might end the life of a preborn child, regardless of the circumstances. We also agree 100 percent with those who contend that the humanness of the child is not dependent upon the health or welfare of the mother. While we would urge the mother to approach this decision prayerfully and in consideration of all the information available, that doesn’t change the fact that, in a scenario like this, a decision of some kind has to be made. For the mother who elects to accept treatment that might end her preborn baby’s life, we believe it’s important to offer compassion, not condemnation.

Finally, we should add that we pointedly disagree with those who expand the phrase “life of the mother” to read “health of the mother.” Under this broader interpretation almost any temporary discomfort during pregnancy can be used to justify an abortion. In fact, Doe v. Bolton, the United States Supreme Court case that along with Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, allows abortion for virtually any or no reason at all under the guise of “health of the mother.” From our perspective, this is altogether different from those few cases in which the continuation of pregnancy places a mother’s life in grave danger.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Why Pro-Life? Caring for the Unborn and Their Mothers

American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Family Research Council

Life Issues

Family Policy Alliance: Life Issues

What is AAPLOG’s Position on Treatment of Ectopic Pregnancy?

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