One argument in favor of Roe v. Wade, and for the general argument that bodily autonomy trumps the right to life, is that pro-life logic would dictate in favor of forced cesarean sections. Many pro-lifers would of course disagree. It's true that in some scenarios a C-section is the safer course of action for the baby. But the mother who desires a vaginal birth if at all possible, or who wants a second opinion before submitting to a C-section, probably isn't deliberately trying to kill her kid. The right to life isn't the right to be free from any and all risks. (One of the leading causes of death in young children is vehicular accidents; it would be far safer for children if we walked everywhere instead of driving cars. But parents' reliance on automobiles is not a violation of the right to life.) We're really talking about a negative right, the right not to be murdered.
That said, one of our readers, Roni Cairns, stumbled upon a fascinating court case that sheds some light on the issue. In Jefferson v. Griffin Spalding County Hospital Authority, 274 S.E.2d 457 (Ga. 1981), hospital administrators sought to compel a C-section in a severe case of placenta previa. The cervix was completely covered by the placenta, so had the woman gone forward with a vaginal birth, the placenta would have had to detach from the wall of the uterus in order to deliver the child—causing the mother to hemorrhage, and depriving the child of oxygen well before complete dilation. Doctors provided the court with evidence that without a C-section, the child's chance of death was virtually 100%. The mother had only a 50-50 chance of survival herself.
Clearly this was a situation where a C-section was warranted. So why did the mother refuse in the first place? Because she was "of the view that the Lord has healed her body and that whatever happens to the child will be the Lord's will." (Notably, once a child is born, acting on such a belief can form the basis for a murder charge. And rightfully so.)
While acknowledging the general rule that people have the right to refuse medical treatment, and the right to exercise their religion, the court found an exception here. The child was 39 weeks along, viable, and obviously incapable of making an informed decision about religious matters. The court's decision was unanimous:
The Court finds that the State has an interest in the life of this unborn, living human being. The Court finds that the intrusion involved into the life of Jessie Mae Jefferson and her husband, John W. Jefferson, is outweighed by the duty of the State to protect a living, unborn human being from meeting his or her death before being given the opportunity to live.Perhaps surprisingly, the opinion cited Roe v. Wade in support of its view:
A viable unborn child has the right under the U. S. Constitution to the protection of the State through such statutes prohibiting the arbitrary termination of the life of an unborn fetus. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (93 S.C. 705, 732, 35 LE2d 147) (1973).Roni speculates that the court was referring to this passage in Roe: "Although the results are divided, most of these courts have agreed that the right of privacy, however based, is broad enough to cover the abortion decision; that the right, nonetheless, is not absolute, and is subject to some limitations; and that, at some point, the state interests as to protection of health, medical standards, and prenatal life, become dominant. We agree with this approach."
Pro-life disagreement with Roe is really about when the interest in prenatal life becomes dominant. Radical abortion supporters would say never; only born life matters. But that position finds no support in the Supreme Court's seminal abortion rights case.