Are Pro-Lifers Being Inconsistent if They Save the Mother’s Life Rather than the Baby’s?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 10/27/2017

What response should one give to pro-choice advocates who claim pro-lifers don’t really believe the unborn has equal value to the born because we’re willing to sacrifice the unborn if the mother’s life is in danger?

It’s actually quite simple to deal with. If our view is that the unborn child is a fully valuable human being, exactly as valuable as the mother, we would approach the ethical problem like we would any other ethical dilemma where human lives are in the balance. We have to look at factors other than their value to decide what to do because their intrinsic value is exactly the same. We look at who it’s possible to save, as we would in any other dilemma where we can’t save everyone.

In the case of many ectopic pregnancies, for example, it’s a lethal circumstance for the mother. Let’s just take the objection at face value. If the mother’s life is genuinely being threatened, the child’s life is also being threatened by the very same thing. Essentially, you’re in an ethical dilemma where you have two lives being threatened, but you can’t save both. You can save one life or lose both lives, so you save as many lives as you can. Since, in such a circumstance, usually the baby is too young to be saved, you save the mom’s life. Usually it’s impossible to save the baby, and rather than let both mother and baby die, you save the mom.

This is a case where an ethical principle called the law of double effect comes into play. That is, there’s an action you are required to take ethically, the consequences of which, when viewed alone, would be immoral, but when taken in conjunction with the other circumstance, it’s the lesser of two evils. And even though you acknowledge that this is an evil because the death of the child would result, you do not intend the death of the child. It’s not the direct intention of the action. The purpose of the action is to save the life of the mother, not to take the life of the baby, even though that’s the consequence in this dilemma.

Now, what’s unfortunate in a lot of circumstances is that the notion of the health of the mother, as opposed to the life of the mother, is worked in legally. Because “health” is such an expansive term, if she’s even emotionally uncomfortable with the idea of having a baby, that’s used as an adequate reason to take the life of the child.

Here’s how you can clarify this question when asked: Treat the unborn exactly like you would any valuable human being. Would we justify killing a three-year-old so the mom would feel more comfortable in any sense? No, because the child’s life trumps any other reason that could be given, other than the dilemma offered in the question. The unborn and the born child should be treated the same way because the intrinsic value of each is the same.

In the case of the dilemma offered, we’re treating the unborn the same as the born. We treat them both as valuable, but we have to make a choice because it’s not possible to save both lives. This is where the law of double effect comes in.

There are lots of illustrations of moral dilemmas like this. For example, there’s the illustration of the child playing on the train tracks, where the father has to pull the lever to switch the tracks so the train can come through rather than derail, and he understands that the child will lose his life in the process. There’s the law of double effect. The intention is to save the lives of the people in the train, not to kill the child, but the child’s death is a foreseen consequence of that action.

The unborn has the same human value as the mother or any other born human being. Therefore, we don’t treat the unborn differently simply because it’s unborn. We treat it the same as we would any other human being in a true moral dilemma.

[The above is adapted from a transcript of the 10/23/17 episode of #STRask.]