The Pregnant Woman and the Good Samaritan: Can a Woman have a Duty to Undergo a Caesarean Section?

Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 20 (3):407-436 (2000)
Although a pregnant woman can now refuse any medical treatment needed by the fetus, the Court of Appeal has acknowledged that ethical dilemmas remain, adverting to the inappropriateness of legal compulsion of presumed moral duties in this context. This leaves the impression of an uncomfortable split between the ethics and the law. The notion of a pregnant woman refusing medical treatment needed by the fetus is troubling and it helps little simply to assert that she has a legal right to do so. At the same time, the idea that a pregnant woman fails in her moral duty unless she accepts any recommended treatment or surgery—however great the burdens—is also not without difficulty. This article seeks to find a way between these two somewhat polarized positions by arguing that, instead of being a question primarily about whether legally to enforce moral obligations, the «maternal—fetal conflict» begins with previously unrecognized difficulties in determining when a woman's prima facie moral rights invoked in the treatment context should «give way» to the interests of the fetus. This difficulty is mirrored within the law. Thus, how can we tell when a pregnant woman has the moral or legal duty to submit to a caesarean section? Seen in this way, the conflict is a problem which lies at the interface between moral and legal rights and duties, showing that there are important conceptual links between the ethics and the law. Against this background, this article explores the limits of a pregnant woman's right to bodily integrity by focusing upon the idea of her moral duty to aid the fetus through her body. Here we find difficulties in determining the existence and extent of this somewhat extraordinary duty. Such a duty is contrasted with both negative and positive duties toward others in the course of «general conduct». Attention to the social context of pregnancy and the refusal of treatment within this is also instructive. Overall, the purpose is to foster understanding and acceptance of the current legal position
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DOI 10.1093/ojls/20.3.407
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