The Salt Lake City Mother: A Right To Do Wrong
In America, and in most societies, there are many things one has an absolute right to do that are nonetheless wrong. They are wrong because they subordinate greater ethical values to non-ethical considerations. Some of these wrongs are more serious than others. Some border on monstrous. For example, one does not have a legal duty to stop a person from physically abusing an animal, a child, or an aged parent, but standing by and allowing the abuse to occur, or turning one’s back and walking away, is wrong.
Now from Salt Lake City comes the story of Melissa Ann Rowland, who, with the help of authorities, has unwittingly raised disturbing issues that could have considerable impact on the ongoing debate over abortion. Mrs. Rowland is being prosecuted for murder because she allowed one of her unborn twins to die by refusing the Caesarean section doctors told her was essential to ensure both infants’ survival.
“We are unable to find any reason [for her decision] other than the cosmetic motivations by the mother,” said Ken Morgan, the district attorney. Well, you try having a C-Section Ken: I’m guessing she might have been afraid. But whether she was afraid or vain, a few things are clear about this awful story.
Ethics Scoreboard does not deny that this situation raises some hard questions for abortion rights advocates. The assertion that a woman has an absolute right to control her body also must necessarily include the assertion of the right to control her body irresponsibly, callously, or unethically. That is the position, and this is one of the circumstances that challenges its validity. But the questions it raises for anti-abortion advocates are hardly easier. Do we really want the state to have the power to force a woman (or a man) to go under the scalpel? If not, it is hard to see how the state can then prosecute a woman for refusing an operation, even one necessary to save her child. It is unlikely, it says here, that the prosecution will prevail against Mrs. Rowland.
The legal issues are complex. It is an unusual and difficult case, and unusual and difficult cases should not by themselves serve as the basis for invalidating laws. The ethical issues are not complex, however. They are clear as crystal. In any system of ethics, saving a human life takes precedence over vanity, fear, or other non-ethical considerations. The law says that it was Mrs. Rowland’s choice, and her choice was selfish, unfeeling, and appalling. What Mrs. Rowland did was wrong, and violates the ethical norms of our society.
Let’s all agree on that first.
Then the policy debate can begin.