Abortions — When the Mother’s Life is at Risk

10 June 2019

5.7 MINS

In my four previous articles on abortion, I have looked at several issues relating to human life, the Divine Prerogative, the timing of abortion and the right to choose.

In this article I want to touch on the issue of abortion where the mother’s life is at risk.

First of all, I need to tell the story of my wife and I.

We lived in central NSW in 1985, my wife was pregnant with our third child. It was late in the first trimester and my wife thought that something was wrong. She presented to the local hospital and they advised her to see a specialist immediately.

They made an urgent appointment and we drove the 100km to the specialist’s surgery.

I watched the screen as the ultrasound revealed a blood clot surrounding the little embryo. The clot was three times the size of the embryo. The specialist said that we had been “lucky” to make the journey to his surgery, but we may not be so lucky if we tried to go home. The vibrations of car travel would almost certainly cause the blood clot to break away and my wife would bleed to death in minutes. If, by some unimagined stroke of luck, the clot didn’t break away, then it would stop the blood flow to the baby, the baby would die in utero and almost certainly cause septicaemia.

Either way, my wife was at immediate risk of death and, according to the specialist, we had no option other than an immediate termination.

Our views on abortion were well-formed and we didn’t abort. Six months later, when our daughter was born, the midwife commented on the scar on the placenta – it had truly been a huge clot. Today our daughter has 2 children of her own. We have no regrets.

When is the life of the mother at risk? Perhaps it is more reasonable to ask when it is NOT at risk. Pregnancy and childbirth certainly carries risk, sometimes that risk is greater than at other times. Even with the technology and skill that we find at work in modern medicine, it is estimated that normal pregnancy still kills about 800 women every day worldwide.

I suggest that at this point, it may be important to distinguish between intentional abortion, where the life of a preborn child is deliberately aborted, and the normal medical treatment afforded to a woman that may result in the death of the unborn child. Where medical intervention to treat illness results in the unintended death of the unborn, it is generally seen as an unintended consequence of the medical intervention. There is a clear ethical distinction between necessary medical intervention where the unborn child may be exposed to some risks, and intentional abortion where the life of the baby is deliberately terminated.

It is important to consider the reality that there are two lives involved: the life of the mother and the life of the baby. The doctor should surely treat both as patients and everything should be done to try and save both lives. However, we must acknowledge that there are circumstances where it is not possible to save both lives. In such a situation, there can be no ‘good’ outcome.

Extreme situations clearly exist in which it is morally obligatory to engage in an activity even though one foresees that that activity poses a risk of death to another person.

For example where a firefighter forces his way into a burning house and finds 2 children unconscious and suffocating from the noxious smoke. The firefighter can only carry one child, so he takes one knowing that the other will die. This dilemma that the firefighter faces, involves a conscious choice between two equally valuable lives. Has he acted immorally?

Of course not, he has saved one, even though it meant the death of the other. Where a death of an innocent victim does occur, there is a moral distinction between having engaged in the activity and saving one at the expense of the other, to where someone deliberately determines to take that other one’s life.

Likewise, because they do not deliberately target an innocent person for “termination”, a medical procedure that becomes necessary to save a woman’s life, can be morally acceptable even if the death of an unborn infant is an unintended consequence.

So the “mother’s life at risk” issue is really about the premeditated, deliberate termination of the life of an unborn child.

The question of whether the mother’s life will cease to be in danger if an abortion is performed is, at best, a subjective argument. There is strong medical evidence that suggests that abortion will NOT actually be necessary to save a mother’s life. Whilst this is an issue that medical specialists will need to debate, the validity of abortion to save the mother’s life is not a given.

So, for example, a woman who is suffering from significantly elevated blood pressure might become less likely to die of a heart attack or stroke brought on by the condition, if she were to have an abortion. But is that sufficient to give moral justification to kill an unborn child? I suggest not.

In the above example, suggesting that it would be a “lifesaving” abortion is not necessarily right. It may lessen, but certainly not eliminate the risk of heart attack or stroke. In fact, such a condition may increase the risk to the mother’s life, that increase in risk being created by the abortion process itself. There is medical evidence that suggests that, where women die of disease while pregnant, abortion would not necessarily prevent death.

So here are some undeniable truths.

  1. There is no such a thing as a perfectly safe pregnancy. Any pregnancy places the mother’s life at risk to some degree.
  2. The natural birth process puts the mother’s life at risk.
  3. Abortion is a process that puts the mother’s life at risk to at least the same (if not a greater) degree than the birth process.

The third point above is one not always considered by those who promote a pro-abortion position.

Some studies have found that the risk to the life of the mother actually increases considerably for those who have abortions. These studies also indicate that there is an increased risk that, where a woman has an abortion, the probability that future pregnancies may fail to go full term is increased.

Further, it has been shown that the mental health of a woman may be significantly impacted if she has an abortion. There have been those who argue that an unwanted pregnancy, can have a negative impact on the mental health of the mother. However studies have shown that the long-term mental health of a woman can be significantly affected by abortion.

The “risk to the mother’s life” argument is certainly quite subjective. When we link this argument with the issue of how far into a pregnancy an abortion may be deemed acceptable, it becomes even more complex. For example, in my wife’s case, she was about 3 months into the pregnancy when an abortion was recommended. But what if the doctor had made that recommendation when she was 6 months pregnant? What about at 8 months pregnant? For those who suggest that it would be OK at 3 months but not at, say, eight months, I would ask why my wife’s life was less valuable just five months further into the pregnancy, or to put it another way, why was my baby’s life more valuable at 8 months than at three?

For those looking at this issue from a Christian perspective, I would ask if God has a purpose for our life? I’m sure that most would say that He does so without any doubt. In fact, the Bible’s teaching on this question, would seem to indicate that God had established a purpose for our life even as we were being formed in our mother’s womb.

If this is the case, did God have a purpose for my daughter’s life? I say, yes he did. If we had aborted her at 3 months, would we have breached God’s purpose and will? I say, absolutely! The argument relating to God’s will is certainly far more complex than this, however my conclusion is the same.

The real issue is not the risk to the mother’s life. The very use of the term “risk” means that there is a possibility of the survival of the mother without an abortion. There is however, a certain death awaiting an unborn child whose mother opts for an abortion. In a “risky” pregnancy, there is a chance that both mother and child will survive. In abortion, there is certainty that the baby will die and there is the risk that the mother may also die. If we value and grant dignity to human life, then abortion can never be a viable option.

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  1. Andrew Smith 10 June 2019 at 9:57 am - Reply

    There’s certainly no problem with an abortion if you would otherwise lose the life of both the baby and the mother. The most common scenario is that of an ectopic pregnancy and the developing baby has usually already died by the time the condition is known. Sometimes stuff happens and that’s all there is to it.

    For later stage pregnancies an option is to finish the pregnancy with an early delivery once the baby is safely past the point of viability. This, combined with time in the neonatal intensive care unit gives a successful outcome for all.

    Excellent article, by the way.

  2. Maynessa 16 June 2019 at 8:02 am - Reply

    Great article

  3. Jonathan Rohrlach 17 June 2019 at 11:57 am - Reply

    A well written article, thank you Dr. David. God’s blessings to you and your family…

  4. Bruce 17 June 2019 at 5:31 pm - Reply

    Great article David, I too am a retired Pastor (Baptist) and believe that each life is unique and special crafted individually by God in the womb.Read Psalm 139
    I am embaressed to call myself a Queenslander i the light of the legislation passed through parliment last year, and the protection it gives to the butchers involved.
    Google Dr Anthony Levatino, American OB/GYN
    He has been there done that and has no shortage of info available, including detailed descriptions of how these killings are done at various stages of pregnacy, and the pressure put on young Drs to conform (or sacrifice their careers). Unless you have got a strong stomach, dont go there after a meal.

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