In parts 4/4.5 of this occasional series, I discussed the case at an American hospital, St Josephs in Arizona – a case which we know must have been repeated out of sight of the world media over and over again, with more tragic conclusions: of a woman who arrived at the emergency department of a Catholic hospital deathly ill from her pregnancy. (Pulmonary hypertension, in this specific instance, but there are many things that can kill a woman when her pregnancy goes wrong.)
There was a simple, obvious, and awful way to save the woman’s life: perform an abortion on a wanted pregnancy. (She was 11 weeks pregnant and there is a health center that provides abortions in Phoenix Arizona: it seems reasonable to conclude that she wanted the baby, who would have been her fifth.) The woman was told that to save her life the pregnancy would need to be terminated. She agreed to the operation. (In the first trimester, aspiration is the normal method – it’s non-surgical, can be performed with only a local anaesthetic, and would have put minimal stress on her over-taxed heart.) The operation was performed: she lived. Had the doctors refrained from performing the abortion – or had they even moved her to an operating theater – she would have died. Of course, when she died, the fetus would have died too.
My guess is that people who’ve read me on Why pro-choice is the ony moral option are surprised that I say it was an awful way to save the woman’s life. But it was: losing a wanted baby is a tragedy. To have to decide to terminate a wanted pregnancy in order to live is a very dreadful choice to have to make, and a pregnant woman has the right to choose not to have an abortion, even though the doctors tell her she would die otherwise. It’s everyone’s right to decide to die rather than receive treatment that goes against their conscience. But no one has a right to make that decision for other people. And a doctor’s overriding ethical obligation, unless they know their patient has other wishes, is to preserve good health and life.