Does Elective Abortion Require Consent from Both Parents?

Can a woman obtain an elective abortion without permission of the father of the embryo or fetus? Many women who become pregnant have this question, possibly because termination of pregnancy is a taboo, or at least an uncomfortable topic in certain cultures. As for the answer, this depends on the country where you are living.

In certain countries, there have been laws requiring that the woman’s sexual partner gives consent to have an abortion. In 2011, for instance, such a requirement was reported for Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malawi, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Equatorial Guinea, Maldives, Morocco, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

Generally, in countries that lead the world in medical technology, such as the United States, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and Israel, the choice for an elective abortion is left to the woman who is pregnant, so long as she is an adult, and in some domains pregnant teenagers also can make this choice. In Canada and in the UK, there have been court cases in recent decades in which fathers have attempted to prevent women whom they had impregnated from aborting, but courts ruled in favor of the women.

In 1973, the principle of a woman’s right to an elective abortion was established in a famous United States Supreme Court case, called Roe versus Wade. Since that time, various anti-abortion groups have attempted to create laws in some US states requiring fathers to give consent to have an abortion. However, US courts have ruled all such laws unconstitutional.

The concept that an embryo, or fetus, belongs in some way to the father dates back well into ancient times. There is some evidence that fathers in ancient Greece were considered legally more important than mothers, that the mothers were considered mere “vessels” for the developing child. Furthermore, one of the most ancient law codes preserved within the Hebrew Bible treats a conceptus developing in the womb as property of the father; this is in the form of law requiring a man who causes a miscarriage by hitting a woman to pay damages to the woman’s husband. On the other hand, by medieval times, there is a hint of relatively progressive thinking regarding abortion within the Talmud, in which the embryo-fetus is given increased status based on the progression of pregnancy. Specifically, an embryo in the Talmud is considered “like water” up to the 40th day of pregnancy, after which it has some level of rights up to the point of birth, when the newborn receives still more rights. In modern times, however, generally, the degree of liberty given to pregnant women to choose abortion is associated with the degree to which religion mixes with public policy and secular laws.

In any case, because of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, in the United States, the basic idea is that it is easy for a woman to obtain an elective abortion early in pregnancy. However, at certain points during pregnancy, there are an increasing number of restrictions, or requirements, that vary from state to state. However, in no case in the US, must the mother receive consent from the father. Therefore, the only way for a father of an embryo or fetus to have a say on the matter of his partner having an elective abortion is to have a good relationship with her, so that she will be more likely to consider his wishes alongside her own. When push comes to shove, however, it is the woman who makes the decision, as we do not live in a society that considers the contents of a woman’s uterus as property of her sexual partner. The embryo, or fetus, after all, is inside of her body, and that is what the laws reflect.

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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