Is it Ethical to Deny a Pregnant Woman the Right to Refuse Unwanted Treatment?
From my currently inactive "Bioethics Discussion Pages", here is another topic that produced some interesting responses from my visitors. The less recent visitor comments are toward the bottom of this post. The ethical question seems to relate to whether the embryo and fetus which presently cannot develop into a baby without being an integral part of the anatomy and physiology of a woman should be considered part of the woman herself. If my blog visitors have their own personal view of the issue, they are welcome to comment. ..Maurice.
It is now a well established right of every competent adult to refuse unwanted medical treatment for their illness. This right has both legal and ethical consensus. This means that a competent patient can refuse to start a treatment or if a treatment is in progress can order that the treatment be terminated. The request can be made in an advance directive such as a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care or in a "living will". If a patient is incompetent at the time of the treatment then the patient's legal surrogate or the advance directive written when the patient was competent can "speak" for the patient. Physicians must follow the request of the patient in this regard and if they can't, perhaps because of moral reasons, the physician must attempt to get the patient transferred to another physician who will follow the directive. The request to end treatment is valid even if that treatment is life supportive such as respirator treatment and that termination may lead to the patient's death. The one exception to this right is directed at the pregnant woman. In many states within the United States, state laws prevent a pregnant woman from either writing an advance directive or specifically preventing her from ordering termination of life support. Whether the pregnancy is either early or late is not a consistent criterion amongst these laws. An argument that is given as the reason for this prohibition is that states have an interest in the fetus and that interest is to allow the fetus to be born. This interest may be based on the concept that a fetus is a person and may have certain rights independent of the mother. Some have criticized the concept that a fetus is a person separate from the mother and that such a concept would make the mother only a "container" for the fetus. These critics argue that the mother and fetus are one, the fetus depending on the mother for life and development until birth and, indeed, needs a mother after delivery. Also whether "personhood" begins before birth or after delivery is another point of contention. The state's legal argument also may support religious concerns as expressed, for example, in Catholic religious directives. The question is whether this denial of a right of autonomous medical decision-making for a pregnant woman is ethically just or beneficent. What do you think?
Here is the question:
Is it ethical to deny a pregnant woman the right to refuse unwanted treatment including termination of life support while permitting refusal by all other competent adult men or women?
Date: Mon, Jun 21, 2004 5:35 PM From: email@example.com To: DoktorMo@aol.com
Although I can see valid points on both sides of the issue, my question is this: who will make medical decisions for the child once it is born? Chances are high the mother of the child. We are not arguing the mother's right to decline/refuse treatment once the child is born. Certain religions and personal convictions refrain individuals every day from receiving treatment for themselves or a family member. If the woman was planning to give the child up for adoption, signing parental rights away already, then the rights of the fetus/unborn child would be up to the adoptive parents/state. However, if the woman intended on keeping the child, it is her right as a parent to decline treatment for her child - regardless of how the medical community may feel about the issue. Our job in the medical community is to not only promote the well being of our clients, but also be an advocate for them without prejudice.
B.Lydick, Northeastern State University Student
Date: Sun, Jun 6, 2004 4:30 PM From: Jennifer-Barber@ouhsc.edu To: DoktorMo@aol.com
I am a nursing student and also pro choice. My concern is that if we allow this to happen, women will be seen as baby carriers again only. It will put an emphasis on the life of the fetus over that of the mother, similar to the view by many pro life advocates. My fear is that, when this happens, Roe v. Wade takes a giant step backwards.
Date: Wed. Jan 21, 2004 10:38 AM From: firstname.lastname@example.org To: DoktorMo@aol.com
I question the term "refuse".
I would accept the term "decline" and regulary recommend that particular term. "Refuse" signifies a force has been directed and someone is having to respond to that force. I can decline to have sex with someone, it is quite another issue to have to refuse to do so.
The "Right to Refuse" has become a legal term of art, but no one has really examined the term from an ethical point of view.
Harold A. Maio
Date: Mon Jun 2, 2003 8:39 PM From: Kduran14@cs.com To: DoktorMo@aol.com
Dear Dr., I read the article and got into a dilemma of my own. I am pro-choice and believe that the women has the right to determine whether or not to keep a pregnancy. If we give women the right to terminate a pregnancy, why would we deny her the right to refuse unwanted treatment? I believe that she should have the right and the doctor can not deny her that right since its violating the patient's autonomy. On the other hand, I believe that the fetus might have rights too. The mother is ready to give up, but what about the fetus who at this time has no voice? It is our job in the medical community to advocate for those who can not speak for themselves. As you can see, I have thoughts on both sides of the coin. How do we determine which side is the right side?
Date: Mon, Jun 2, 2003 4:37 PM From: TheresaTfrawley@aol.com To: DoktorMo@aol.com
Greetings, I am a student at Salem State College in a medical ethics class with Pricilla Richardson.
In response to the question of a pregnant woman and her choice to refuse medical treatment, the following thoughts come to mind. The woman needs to decide if she wants to terminate the pregnancy or keep the baby. If she decides to keep the child it should be her obligation to seek prenatal care for many reasons. The care of her own health and the fetus that she is going to have are at stake when lack of health care is provided. The patient that refuses medical treatment during pregnancy should be evaluated to determine if they are competent to be their own guardian. Why should the child suffer because the mother refused to take care of her body during this crucial time?
Date: Wed, May 21, 2003 4:24 PM From: email@example.com To: DoktorMo@aol.com
The pregnant woman should not be taken off life support until the fetus has reached sufficient development to be viable outside the womb. Then life support for the mother can be terminated.
Thank you, Mary T. McGuire, Student at Salem State College, Massachusetts
Date: Mon, Apr 14, 2003 3:24 PM From: firstname.lastname@example.org To: DoktorMo@aol.com
I do believe it is no longer the right of the women but of the baby from the time of conception on. Who is protecting the rights of the unborn child?
Date: Tue, Apr 8, 2003 11:03 AM From: email@example.com To: DoktorMo@aol.com
We allow women the right to have an abortion so what is the difference? Why not allow them to choose what medical treatment they will receive? I disagree with abortion, but for years people have fought for women to have the right of choice. Competent men and women have a right to choose so what makes a pregnant woman any different? We allow her the choice of terminating her pregnancy or continuing it, so why not allow her the choice of what medical treatment she will receive?
Date: Thu, Mar 21, 2002 4:26 PM From: dr__Bob@hotmail.com To: DoktorMo@aol.com
The answer here is strongly shaped by ones views on the beginning of human life. I must point out though that in many situations one persons life or health may hinge on another's but that does not automatically give one control over another's medical decisions. The right of any adult to the control of his or her own body must be considered the most basic of all human rights. If I do not have control of my own body then I control nothing. What if the treatment in question were painful? Would we have the right to insist that a woman suffer pain to allow her child to be born. What then of obstetric anesthesia which may have risks to the fetus. What of the pregnant woman who chooses to use drugs? Should she be imprisoned until she delivers? Yet prison is not a completely safe environment either. What of the pregnant woman who smokes? What of the pregnant woman who is a devout Christian Scientist? Once we start down this road we turn the adult human woman into a biologic incubator
Date: Mon, Feb 18, 2002 7:34 PM From: firstname.lastname@example.org To: DoktorMo@aol.com
This is a pro-life topic, looked at from a different angle.
I believe that everyone should be able to refuse unwanted treatment, but for a pregnant female who chose not to abort... I believe that she should do what is best for her fetus. She decided not to abort, to become a mother, and in choosing to be a mother she should put her child/fetus first.
Date: Sat, Feb 9, 2002 4:20 PM From: email@example.com To: DoktorMo@aol.com
I believe no one whether pregnant or not, should be denied the right to refuse unwanted treatment. It would be ethically wrong to do so. However, the pregnant women presents an ethical dilemma in that her decision could affect the viability of her unborn baby. This then leads to the question of when life begins and inevitably, the pro-life/pro-choice issue. When a parent refuses to seek medical care for their child , for whatever reasons, the court usually gets involved for human rights reasons and in many cases, becomes the advocate of that minor child. Does the parent then loose her autonomy as a result? Who advocates for the unborn child? At what point does an unborn fetus become a child? When the pregnancy is desired?
Date: Fri, Dec 28, 2001 8:35 AM From: firstname.lastname@example.org To: DoktorMo@aol.com
United States Law has consistently upheld that a pregnant woman has the right to terminate the life of her baby through abortion. To deny a woman the right to refuse unwanted medical treatment during pregnancy would be inconsistent with previously held decisions regarding her right to terminate, and would open the door for overturning the current abortion laws.
As far as I am concerned, forcing women, whether pregnant or not, to accept medical treatment is in violation of the 14th Amendment, and could not be defended constitutionally.
Thank you, Judie C. Rall, C.C.E., The Center for Unhindered Living, http://www.unhinderedliving.com/
Date: Sun, Sep 30, 2001 7:15 PM From: email@example.com To: DoktorMo@aol.com
Denying unwanted medical treatment is not a crime, it is a rational personal decision. If a woman is competent, and decides against treatment, she should be able to reserve her personal rights despite being pregnant. More importantly her decision isn't infringing on the rights of any other living person, only on her and her body (including the fetus which is biologically a part of her). Furthermore, to infringe on another person's rights is unethical, and to deny a pregnant woman her rights while allowing others to maintain them is just so.
Date: Sun, Sep 30, 2001 From: firstname.lastname@example.org To: DoktorMo@aol.com
If pregnancy automatically removes the autonomy of a woman in any respect, the consequence would be the right of others to dictate her actions in almost every respect, since she and her fetus are one. No adult human being can be ethically stripped of rights in any circumstance.
One might wish to force an unwanted Caesarean Section on a pregnant woman, when one anticipates death for the woman and her fetus if an abnormal labour is left to run its course. However, by extending the same logic, one would imprison a pregnant woman whose lifestyle could be said to put her fetus at aviodable risk, for example, a smoker. If you feel little sympathy with smokers, consider force feeding an anaemic vegan, or attaching a ball and chain to an inveterate hang glider.
We all owe our existence to our mothers. If some mothers do not choose to do as we see fit, we continue to owe them respect.
Date: Mon, Sep 3, 2001 7:38 PM From: email@example.com To: DoktorMo@aol.com
It is obvious to me that the issue of treatment refusal by pregnant women raises the same questions as the issue of abortion. It is often a misconception that the abortion issue centers on a woman's right to choose. The issue centers on whether a human being's life is being taken during the act of abortion, not on any right for a choice that could be made before conception. So, the question of whether a pregnant woman has the right to refuse treatment is mostly centered on this same distinction.
My personal opinion is that a woman's right to refuse treatment is overruled by the fetus's right to live. People often make exceptions when it comes to having the right to be free and do as one chooses. These exceptions usually come in when the action of a free person infringes upon another person or persons' lives. Given that I believe in the human status of a fetus, my conscience tells me that the willful destruction of this life is wrong. Although it's difficult to make a black and white distinction between right and wrong in many cases, it seems to me that refusal of treatment would be as murderous as shooting someone in cold blood.