When do parental rights and responsibilities begin and end? | Isabel Stabile

Whether you drown in a river trying to save your child or you die during pregnancy, you are still dead

The question I would like to address is whether women should be required to give birth, in other words just because a woman has hadImagine your child requires a life-saving intervention, are you required to provide it by donating your own blood or tissue, to make sure your child remains alive? Should a parent put their own life at risk by allowing their body to be used to make sure the child remains alive?

Imagine a situation where a child requires a kidney/liver transplant to stay alive and one of the parents is a viable candidate for transplantation, but that parent does not want to donate (for whatever reason), does the law force him to do so? Or imagine that a child has fallen into a fast-moving river.

Assuming the parent can swim, would s/he be legally responsible for the death of that child if they did not jump into the river at considerable risk to themselves? Must a parent run into a collapsing building to save their child? In each of these examples the parent might choose to take the risk, but are they required to by law?

Most of us would agree that we should normally let parents make that decision themselves, and we would be sympathetic if they choose not to, in view of the risks to themselves.

If a pregnant person (who is not even yet a parent) must continue with the pregnancy, whatever the circumstances, as our law requires, then it follows that after birth, that same parent should be required to do whatever it takes to keep their child alive.

Since our laws do not impose the requirement to put yourself at risk to save your child, why is it that we have laws that prohibit a pregnant person from deciding to end the pregnancy?

It would seem that the situation in Malta is one where the parent of a child is held to a lesser level of responsibility than a pregnant woman who is not allowed the possibility of having an abortion.

One might argue that it is a question of degree of risk. So, for example, jumping into a swimming pool to save your child’s life, when there is minimal risk to yourself, might be considered legally your responsibility.

But that assumes that you know what risks you are facing. For example, if you are a strong swimmer you can assume that the risk to yourself is small. However, we cannot assume that women know that their pregnancy will be uneventful.

In fact, we cannot fully predict what will happen during a pregnancy or birth which is the whole point of antenatal care.

It follows that it should be up to the woman to decide whether she wants to take the risk of a pregnancy.

In my view, nobody who is pregnant should be required to take an unknown risk. They may choose to do so, or not.

This is not about whether abortion is morally correct or incorrect. If you cannot bring yourself to run into a building that is collapsing to save your child’s life, then why should you be required to go through pregnancy?

You do not know what will happen when you take the risk. You might come out alive carrying the child or you might be buried with the child. You just do not know.

What you do know when you are pregnant is that you have 40 weeks of unforeseen, albeit minimal risk ahead of you followed by a birth, with somewhat more risk.  Bear in mind that certain pregnancies with pre-existing medical conditions would increase the risk.

And whether you drown in a river trying to save your child or you die during pregnancy, you are still dead.

That is why it is the pregnant person who should decide whether they are willing to take that risk. Please note that I am simply using death as an example and I am well aware that maternal mortality is rare.

In fact, there are no parental rights or obligations until there is an actual child who is living independently of the woman. If you do not want to donate blood or tissue, or jump into the water, you are not required to do so.

This is what is meant by bodily autonomy.

Prof. Isabel Stabile is a member of Doctors for Choice