Life (or health) of the Mother

Most Americans on both sides of the abortion debate are familiar with arguments for ending a pregnancy when the life of the mother is threatened. Newer legislation, however, will often add the words “or health” of the mother.

This post examines the problematic nature of the addition of the words “or health” when describing the pregnancy as a danger to the mother.

The Health of the Mother

Very few would argue that an abortion may be necessary if the life of the mother is in imminent danger. Years ago, when my wife was pregnant with our son, she experienced excruciating pain. We were advised to prepare for a decision to end the pregnancy if her initial symptoms were consistent with a life-threatening worst-case-scenario.

And we would have.

It was a terrifying period, but my wife’s diagnosis was not the worst-case-scenario. We welcomed our son into the world several months later.

Abortion in cases of the mother’s life being in danger account for a low percentage of abortions performed.

Determining that the mother’s life is in danger is in most cases, suggested by a qualified medical professional.

However, New York’s law gives an additional category for permitting an abortion beyond 24 weeks and up to the due date; the health of the mother. What does this mean? How broad a definition for “health” is given? In New York’s law, there is no clarification for defining what encompasses the mother’s health.

What we have in the New York law is a very narrow definition of “person.”  (See A person is a person no matter how small), along with an undefined term in “health.”

Why does this matter? Because the two are interdependent. By withholding personhood from the developing fetus and allowing abortions to be performed to protect the life or health of the mother, New York’s law allows for abortions to be performed not only because the life of the mother is threatened, but because the pregnancy will negatively affect an area of health. While data show small percentages of abortions performed out of concern for the mother’s mental health, there are other arguments made for disturbing physical and non-physical “threats” to the mother’s health.

Physical – Abortion as self-defense

Way back in 1996, Eileen Mcdonagh, a professor at Northwestern University, published a book entitled, Breaking the Abortion Deadlock: From Choice to Consent. In it, she described the idea of abortion as self-defense from the developing fetus’ non-consensual intrusion and invasion of the woman’s body. In the book, McDonagh points out that “even in a medically normal pregnancy, the fetus massively intrudes on a woman’s body and expropriates her liberty. If the woman does not consent to this transformation and use of her body, the fetus’s imposition constitutes injuries sufficient to justify the use of deadly force to stop it” — as in “rape, kidnapping or slavery.”

Her thesis, she writes, “expands the concept of wrongful pregnancy to include what the fertilized ovum does to a woman when it makes her pregnant without her consent.” Self-defense, therefore, is called for.

A BBC article from 2014, describes abortion as self-defense in terms much less harsh than McDonagh, but maintaining the core of the argument, “if a fetus (entirely innocently) endangers the life of a mother, it’s argued that the mother has the right to abort it.” In contrast to the argument, however, the article also states, “unlike most cases of self-defense, the fetus isn’t actually doing anything that threatens the mother.”

The concern here is this approach frames the pregnancy as a physical threat to a woman’s health by seeing the fetus as a non-consensual intruder that should be expelled. Such an approach can justify an abortion being performed when there is no imminent threat to the life of the mother whatsoever.


The BBC article recognizes that self-defense could possibly apply to non-physical threats to a mother’s health and lists a series of health concerns for which an abortion might be sought.

To be clear, data show a small percentage of abortions performed due to demonstrable and serious threats to the mother’s mental health. I would place this close to the life of the mother argument, but would also advocate for resources, services, adoption, and other appropriate options to be explored rather than the pregnancy be ended.

My concern, however, is the list of other factors listed as “health” reasons, damage to the family, damage to career prospects, damage to financial prospects, damage to plans for her life. This is where a threat to the mother’s “health” position pales in comparison to a threat to the mother’s “life.”

The BBC article points out “The self-defense argument for abortion seems to fail here, because although a threat to life can be a defense to a charge of killing someone, none of the above (damage to family damage to career prospects, damage to financial prospects, damage to plans for her life) would be an adequate defense in a case of homicide, nor would they be regarded as reasons that justified euthanasia. But if we don’t regard the fetus as a person with a right to live, or if we regard it as a being that doesn’t have a full right to life, then these cases of self-defense may be arguable.”

Which brings us back to New York’s definition of “person.” If a person is a person only once they have been born, then a developing fetus is not a person. Even if they are viable. Even on their due date.

Because of the abundance of support, resources, services, and other options for meeting the needs of mothers with the concerns above, the notion of not being able to afford a child, not wanting to interrupt your schooling, and not wanting to be a single parent are all very good reasons for not having a baby, but they are not good reasons for ending the life of a developing human being.

New York calls this a reproductive right. I call it a tragedy.

No matter where you land on these various aspects of New York’s Reproductive Health Act, the heart of this matter is that an elective abortion ends the life of a developing human being. I believe that developing human being is deserving of full personhood, full human dignity, and full protection from conception to the first cry.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s