One ethical dispute within the legal system regards the maternal vs. federal rights of a mother under prosecution. When a pregnant woman endangers her fetus or causes prenatal harm to an offspring, she may face criminal charges due to her actions.
As the knowledge of prevention of prenatal harm increases, so too has public pressure to legally force non-compliant pregnant women to behave in a way that acts in the best interests of the child. The growing number of legal cases throughout the US has supported a trend of forced treatment of pregnant women, whether being: mandatory diet restrictions, court-ordered Caesarean sections, and such as in the hypothetical case, incarceration for failing to follow medical advice. This may also apply to other prenatal dangers such as poor nutrition, use of drugs, or alcohol. However, moral opinion is ambiguous on the matter. Do society and the legal system have the right to control the behavior of mothers?
A hypothetical case would be as follows. A mother's doctor thinks the woman has irresponsibly been drinking excessive amounts of alcohol which poses dangers to the child as heavy alcohol use may result in “fetal alcohol syndrome.” The infant, as a result, may suffer from physical disabilities or have a high birth-mortality probability. The mother’s doctor is seeking a court order to incarcerate the mother throughout the duration of her pregnancy, forcing her to follow the doctor’s advice, and halt her drinking habits for the wellbeing of the infant.
On one hand, research in modern medicine continues to highlight the importance of abstaining from drinking habits throughout pregnancy to maintain the baby’s health. Moreover, developments in genetics provide prenatal diagnostic tests and medical treatments which would enable doctors to prevent birth defects during pregnancy. However, while most women act for the sake of their child, some continue to participate in activities or behave in a way that would cause long-term harm to their offspring and refuse medical treatments. As a child has a right to be protected from avoidable harm, society must protect the child, even to the extent of forcing a woman to change her behavior.
There are cases in which a pregnant woman’s right to freedom of choice may be weighted against a child’s right to be healthy. For example, prenatal medical treatments that pose little health risk to mothers, such as the administration of drugs or low-risk surgeries allow society to force mothers to undergo such treatments.
Those opposed argue that every person has an undeniable fundamental right to freedom of choice and control over his or her life. In the context of the ethical dilemma at hand, forcing a woman to undergo medical treatment against her will violates this right and may also harm the mother to protect the child. The prenatal decisions made during pregnancy are made based on a mother’s circumstances, her values, and her preferences. Others, especially being the judicial system, do not have a moral right to impose judgment about what is best for the child and deprive the mother of her freedom.
Furthermore, forcing women to submit to medical treatment for the sake of their fetuses imposes an obligation that is not imposed on others - which is a major concern considering that justice requires that all persons be treated equally. In society, it is not forced upon someone to donate their kidney, blood, or bone marrow to benefit the lives of others, yet it is acceptable for pregnant women to undergo dangerous surgeries or change their lifestyles to benefit a fetus. The legal control of women is to demand authority and compliance which is over and above what is demanded from the rest of society.
Finally, compelling a pregnant woman to follow medical advice otherwise face incarceration, as demonstrated in the hypothetical case above, will only cause more harm than good. To avoid legal issues, women with high-risk pregnancies, of whom require prenatal care, may avoid doctors or withhold important information concerning their health. As a result, the health of the fetus may be placed in even greater jeopardy.
This debate attempts to draw the lines as to what, in the US criminal justice system constitutes child abuse and thus grounds of taking legal ownership of a child from his or her parents. The careful balance in the values of freedom and self-determination attempts to distinguish between what does or does not constitute harmful prenatal conduct which may provide a reason for the forced treatment of pregnant women.