Abortion Restrictions and Compulsory Organ Donation

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Parker Crutchfield, PhD, and Emily Carroll

The Texas legislature recently passed a law prohibiting abortion of a fetus older than six weeks. The law allows abortions after six weeks in life-threatening emergencies, but not when the pregnancy results from rape or incest. The law is extraordinarily restrictive and additionally deputizes citizens to enforce the law, providing a $10,000 bounty for successful civil suits of people involved in the “aiding and abetting” of abortion. The Supreme Court of the United States recently neglected to halt the law, which meant it went into effect.

We can’t be sure of the exact thoughts of those who enact or support the bill. However, there are some claims that such people often hold. In an article set to appear in Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, we argue that these claims imply that if one supports restrictions on abortion, one must also support compulsory organ donation. In other words, if you support restrictions on abortion, to remain intellectually consistent you must also support a corresponding degree of compulsory organ donation.

The Duty to Protect

Our argument starts with a claim common to those who oppose a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. This claim is that a mother has a duty to protect her fetus.

The duty to protect is supposed to be a special obligation that holds between mother and fetus. Special obligations are those that hold between people in virtue of some relation between them. We have many obligations to other people; most apply regardless of how we are related to them. But special obligations arise only in the context of certain relationships, such as those that hold between parent and child. Most people agree that a mother or father’s obligations to their child are different from those that they have to strangers. Here’s one example: a parent has a duty to protect their child, but no such duty to protect a stranger who lives in a distant locale. There are other ways to explain the duty to protect, but the one we prefer is that special obligations kick in when one person’s life is vulnerable to another person’s actions (Goodin, 1986). The more one person’s well-being is vulnerable to another person’s actions, the more the second person must protect the first. Thus, on this view the mother has such a strong duty to protect the fetus that she must allow it to use her body, willing or not.

From Prohibited Abortion to Compulsory Organ Donation

But there are other implications of this line of argument. What’s true of the mother-fetus relationship is also true of the parent-child relationship. If a fetus has full moral status, then so does a child. And children are highly vulnerable to their parents. Their well-being is significantly affected by their parents’ actions. This is true not only of their social and emotional well-being, but also of their physical well-being. This is especially true of children who need organ or tissue donation.

Children who need blood products or a kidney, liver, heart, lung, or any other organ are highly vulnerable to their parents’ actions. At a minimum, the child is vulnerable to the parent’s cooperation with the healthcare team’s treatment plan. But the child who needs an organ or tissue donation is also vulnerable to the parent’s biology. In particular, a parent may be the most biologically compatible potential donor. For parents who are a compatible donor for their child, the child’s well-being is extremely vulnerable to their parent’s actions. In a society where organs and tissues are a scarce resource, the child’s vulnerability to a biologically compatible parent is a matter of life and death.

Children who need organ or tissue donation to survive are about as vulnerable to their biologically compatible parents as a fetus is to its mother. If a mother must donate her body to her fetus unless doing so emergently threatens her life, then a parent must donate organs and tissues unless doing so emergently threatens their life. This obligation would hold for both mothers and fathers. If a child needs a kidney and their father is a match, he must donate his kidney to his child, even if he doesn’t want to. Donating a kidney is not emergently life-threatening, nor is donating a variety of other organs and tissues. If mothers shouldn’t have a choice to terminate a fetus, parents should not have a choice about whether to donate organs and tissues.

A Policy Proposal

To be clear: we are not arguing that abortion is wrong or that it should be allowed. Nor are we arguing that tissue and organ donation should be compulsory. Rather, we are drawing out the implications of the anti-choice position. There are ways out of this implication, but they are unfriendly to the anti-choice position. For example, they may wish to accept that mothers have a duty to protect the fetus, but deny that they do so in virtue of the vulnerability of the fetus to the mother. Such a strategy is not likely to help their position, as other available accounts of special obligations are even less supportive (such as the view that special obligations only arise when someone voluntarily takes them on (Brake, 2010), which clearly isn’t the case when someone seeks an abortion).

For people who support the Texas law, intellectual consistency demands they also support compulsory organ donation. Thus, supporters should also consider legislation compelling parents to donate organs and tissues to their children, even if they don’t want to, and even if doing so presents a significant risk to the parent. Indeed, they should also want to deputize citizens to enforce the law, such that there is a $10,000 bounty on biologically compatible parents who fail to donate.

But if such a policy is unacceptable, so is the Texas law.

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Parker Crutchfield, PhD, is Associate Professor in the Department of Medical Ethics, Humanities, and Law at Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. His research interests include biomedical and public health ethics, moral psychology, and epistemology. His book, Moral Enhancement and the Public Good, was released by Routledge in 2021.

Emily Carroll is a third-year medical student at Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. She completed her undergraduate studies in psychology and biology at McGill University. Her research interests in medical school include bioethics and public health.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The authors will respond to all comments made by Thursday, October 7, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

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Continue reading “Abortion Restrictions and Compulsory Organ Donation”

Commentary from Dr. Fleck published in ‘Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics’

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Center Acting Director and Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck has a commentary in the July 2020 issue of Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. The commentary is titled “Medical Ethics: A Distinctive Species of Ethics.”

Dr. Fleck writes, “Like the sciences, medical ethics has evolved with its own distinctive ethical norms and understandings as a result of emerging technologies (ICUs, organ transplantation, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, and so on) as well as chancing political, economic, and organizational structures and practices relevant to health care.”

The full text is available online via Cambridge Core (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).

New health care justice article from Dr. Fleck in ‘Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics’

Leonard Fleck photoCenter Acting Director and Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck has an article in the July 2019 issue of Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. “Precision QALYs, Precisely Unjust” addresses issues of health care justice and cost effectiveness.

Abstract: Warwick Heale has recently defended the notion of individualized and personalized Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) in connection with health care resource allocation decisions. Ordinarily, QALYs are used to make allocation decisions at the population level. If a health care intervention costs £100,000 and generally yields only two years of survival, the cost per QALY gained will be £50,000, far in excess of the £30,000 limit per QALY judged an acceptable use of resources within the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. However, if we know with medical certainty that a patient will gain four extra years of life from that intervention, the cost per QALY will be £25,000. Heale argues fairness and social utility require such a patient to receive that treatment, even though all others in the cohort of that patient might be denied that treatment (and lose two years of potential life). Likewise, Heale argues that personal commitments of an individual (religious or otherwise), that determine how they value a life-year with some medical intervention, ought to be used to determine the value of a QALY for them. I argue that if Heale’s proposals were put into practice, the result would often be greater injustice. In brief, requirements for the just allocation of health care resources are more complex than pure cost-effectiveness analysis would allow.

The full text is available online via Cambridge University Press (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).

Healthcare cost article from Dr. Fleck published in April ‘Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics’

Leonard Fleck photoCenter Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck has a new article published in the April 2018 issue of Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. The article, “Controlling Healthcare Costs: Just Cost Effectiveness or “Just” Cost Effectiveness?,” appears in a special section on justice, healthcare, and wellness.

Abstract: Meeting healthcare needs is a matter of social justice. Healthcare needs are virtually limitless; however, resources, such as money, for meeting those needs, are limited. How then should we (just and caring citizens and policymakers in such a society) decide which needs must be met as a matter of justice with those limited resources? One reasonable response would be that we should use cost effectiveness as our primary criterion for making those choices. This article argues instead that cost-effectiveness considerations must be constrained by considerations of healthcare justice. The goal of this article will be to provide a preliminary account of how we might distinguish just from unjust or insufficiently just applications of cost-effectiveness analysis to some healthcare rationing problems; specifically, problems related to extraordinarily expensive targeted cancer therapies. Unconstrained compassionate appeals for resources for the medically least well-off cancer patients will be neither just nor cost effective.

The full text is available online through Cambridge University Press (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).

Dr. Fleck co-authors ICU article in new ‘Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics’

Leonard Fleck photoCenter Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck has a new article in the January 2018 issue of Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. The article, “First Come, First Served in the Intensive Care Unit: Always?,” was written by Dr. Fleck and Timothy F. Murphy.

Abstract: Because the demand for intensive care unit (ICU) beds exceeds the supply in general, and because of the formidable costs of that level of care, clinicians face ethical issues when rationing this kind of care not only at the point of admission to the ICU, but also after the fact. Under what conditions—if any—may patients be denied admission to the ICU or removed after admission? One professional medical group has defended a rule of “first come, first served” in ICU admissions, and this approach has numerous moral considerations in its favor. We show, however, that admission to the ICU is not in and of itself guaranteed; we also show that as a matter of principle, it can be morally permissible to remove certain patients from the ICU, contrary to the idea that because they were admitted first, they are entitled to stay indefinitely through the point of recovery, death, or voluntary withdrawal. What remains necessary to help guide these kinds of decisions is the articulation of clear standards for discontinuing intensive care, and the articulation of these standards in a way consistent with not only fiduciary and legal duties that attach to clinical care but also with democratic decision making processes.

The full text is available online through Cambridge University Press (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).