Commentary on Pollard

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.

The Jakobovits Centre of Jewish Medical Ethics, Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Beer Sheva, ISRAEL (Home Tel/FAX: +972-2-9963048)


Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 6 (1996), 7.
Dr. Pollard's (1) central point is highly troubling. Fetal abuse is a form of child abuse. She brings a large number of references to show that pregnant women who take drugs, drink alcohol, smoke or even drink coffee during pregnancy can endanger the future health of their babies. And a father who smoke's in his pregnant wife's presence, or even indulges in smoking or drugs before getting her pregnant, may also be guilty of complicity. The scientific basis of her argument deserves detailed examination of each of her sources. But let us look here at the ethical side.

At least since Judith Jarvis Thomson's well known 1971 paper (2) we have been familiar with the idea that a woman's body is her own property, to do with it as she wishes. This idea is the basis of many arguments in favour of allowing abortion. But can we really say that a woman (or her husband) has an ethical right to behave at will when their behavior affects the future health of the child?

I was recently told of a case in which a pregnant woman with AIDS (not just HIV positive but already sick) refused a cesarean section, which might have protected the baby from infection (though there is more chance that the fetus will be unaffected). In spite of today's ideology of "autonomy" and "informed consent" would there not be room for forcing or perhaps deceiving the woman into being anaesthetized and undergoing cesarean for the sake of the baby? Is "paternalism" a sin if it protects an innocent child? And in spite of my strong feelings against any laws whatever which limit the freedom of the individual, can future parents be allowed to indulge any habits or desires for pleasure they like even when this may doom the baby to a lifetime of illness?

These are hard questions because when it comes down to it, I'm not sure how far I can favour coercion.

1. Pollard, I. EJAIB 6 (1995), 2-6.
2. Thomson JJ. A defense of abortion. Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1971), 47-66.


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