It is no secret that pregnancy is no easy feat. Women’s bodies are put through unbelievable amounts of strain and stress during the nine-month gestation period. A woman’s diet, sleep patterns, emotions and body are expected to adapt to accommodate the new growing life form, and as a result every subsequent decision that is made by the mother is supposed to be done for the sake of the health of her child. But while all of this is considered to be common knowledge, people sometimes overlook the fact that women are human beings too, whose own health and well-being must be considered. The health of the mother is just as important as the health of the child. And so this begs the question of whether a mother has the right to refuse a particular procedure or treatment that could potentially save her child if she herself does not want to undergo the procedure for fear of the effects it might have on herself.

Consider the example of Melissa Rowland, a twenty eight year old mother from Utah who was pregnant with twins in 2004[1]. In December 2004, Rowland underwent testing after which her doctors advised that she have an immediate caesarean section because she had little amniotic fluid and was therefore suffering from a condition known as oligohydramnios. Oligohydramnios is a condition that can occur at any point during a pregnancy but is most commonly found in the third trimester[2]. It can be caused by the rupturing of the amniotic sack, an abnormal placenta that is not providing enough nutrients, or defects in the mother’s kidneys that in turn cause low levels of amniotic fluid2. In most cases, the most immediate form of action taken against this is a C- section, as was suggested in Rowland’s case. Rowland, however, had already delivered multiple children via C-section and did not wish to undergo the operation again. In January 2005, she went into labor, but one of her children was a stillborn, and while the other one survived, it suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome due to Rowland’s drinking habits1. As a result, the State of Utah charged her with the murder and endangerment of her two unborn children because of her drinking habits, which put the children in harms way, to which Rowland pled guilty.

This case had a lot of controversy surrounding it, as she did, in a way, endanger the lives of her children. But a cesarean section is an operation that can have serious effects on the mother. When approaching this sensitive topic, one must consider the manner in which the law treats situations like this. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the law has a very child centric approach, which is an inappropriate way to handle the situation, since the mother is a human being who deserves equal legal representation[3].  The mother’s autonomy should be indisputable. While it is the ethical responsibility of a doctor or an obstetrician to lend their medical opinion, it is ultimately the mother’s decision to make, and no action should be taken without the mother’s consent since the mother’s body is also at risk. Not only that, the medical knowledge surrounding child birth is not fully comprehensive, and so to criminalize women for making autonomous decisions when the information available is limited is morally unjust. Thus, since women have the right to make decisions for their own selves, they should not be charged with endangering the lives of their children when their own health must also be taken into consideration.

[1] https://cbhd.org/content/rights-and-responsibilities-pregnant-women-0

[2] http://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-complications/oligohydramnios/

[3] ACOG Committee Opinion, “Maternal Decision Making, Ethics, and the Law,” Obstetrics and Gynecology Vol 106, No. 5 (November 2005): 1127-1137