Shouldn’t We Permit Abortion Only to Save the Life of the Mother?

Abortion is completely legal in more than one hundred nations. In almost every case, population controllers first drove in the ultra-thin wedge of allowing abortion when the mother’s life is in danger.

This is a brilliant strategy for two reasons.

First, abortionists can easily stretch any law, no matter how strict or precisely written, into abortion on demand. Since they falsely consider abortion to be safer than childbirth, pro-abortionists can easily justify all abortions under the “life of the mother” exception. In fact, abortionists have claimed that all abortions are medically necessary.

This is certainly not a new development. For example, in 1980 abortionist Lise Fortier asserted, “Each and every pregnancy threatens a woman’s life. From a strict medical viewpoint, every pregnancy should be aborted.”1 Even earlier, abortionist David Zbaraz claimed that all first-trimester and most second-trimester abortions are medically necessary since, as he alleged, they are safer than childbirth.2

The second reason that the “life of the mother” exception is so pernicious is that it gets people in nations with pro-life laws accustomed to the concept of abortion so that it can be rapidly expanded in the future. After all, if we can legalize abortion when the mother’s life is in danger, why not legalize it to preserve her physical and mental health as well ― and then for social and economic reasons?

Time and again, this has happened. Health exceptions are used as a tool to expand legal abortion access even when they were not intended to be, and doctors abuse such exceptions to allow them to perform abortions. The definition of what is and is not medically necessary becomes increasingly wide to accommodate more procedures and increase the number of abortions.

quotation from Hymie Gordon on abortion when the mother's life is in danger


Rarity of the “Hard Cases”

People habitually overestimate the number of abortions committed for the classic “hard cases” of rape and incest, eugenics and life and health of the mother, a common error that is not at all discouraged by pro-abortionists.

Thirty years ago, Dr. Irving Cushner, Professor of Obstetrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. When one of the Senators asked him how often abortions are necessary, whether to to save the life of the mother or to preserve her physical health, Dr. Cushner, who was strongly pro-abortion, answered, “In this country, about one percent.”3

This number has not changed. During the years 1996 to 2020, the states of Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Utah compiled data on the reasons women obtain abortions. Of the 2.4 million aborting women surveyed, only 1.14% replied that they were having abortions to protect their lives or physical health.

Pie chart showing why women have abortions

Source: tabulation of reports on “Induced Termination of Pregnancy” from Florida [1998-2020], Louisiana [1996-2018], Minnesota [1999-2019], Nebraska [2001-2019], South Dakota [1999-2019], and Utah [1996-2018].

Modern medicine has virtually eliminated avoidable maternal deaths due to pregnancy, as many leading experts attested decades ago:

  • Alan Guttmacher of Planned Parenthood did more to promote and spread abortion on demand throughout the world than any other individual. Nearly fifty years ago, he commented, “Today it is possible for almost any patient to be brought through pregnancy alive, unless she suffers from a fatal disease such as cancer or leukemia, and if so, abortion would be unlikely to prolong, much less save the life.”4 Certainly, with all of the advances in medicine since then, cases in which a woman’s pregnancy threatens her health are even rarer today.
  • In 1990, reformed abortionist Bernard Nathanson said, “The situation where the mother’s life is at stake were she to continue a pregnancy is no longer a clinical reality. Given the state of modern medicine, we can now manage any pregnant woman with any medical affliction successfully, to the natural conclusion of the pregnancy: The birth of a healthy child.”5
Bernard Nathanson

Abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson aborted his own child and 5,000 others in his career. But then ultrasound came into being, and he saw a baby react to being aborted live, on screen. It caused his radical conversion.


  • In 1974, the “Father of Fetology,” Hymie Gordon, M.D., Director of Medical Genetics at the Mayo Clinic, stated, “In more than 25 years now of medical practice, I have come to learn that if a woman is healthy enough to become pregnant, she is healthy enough to complete the term ― in spite of heart disease, liver disease, almost any disease. As far as I’m concerned, there are no medical indications for terminating a pregnancy.”6
  • In 1981, Dr. Jasper Williams, Jr., of the Bernard Hospital in Chicago, Past President of the National Medical Association, said, “Since 1953, I have never seen a patient die because she needed an abortion and it could not be performed. Doctors now have the tools and the knowledge with which to work so that they can handle almost any disease a patient may have, whether that patient is pregnant or not, and without interrupting the pregnancy.”7


What if the Mother’s Life Really Is in Danger?

The number of medically necessary abortions is essentially zero. In those extremely rare cases when the mother’s life truly is threatened by pregnancy (such as with cancer of the uterus or ectopic pregnancy), she may undergo an operation whose purpose is to save her life, even if the preborn child may die as an indirect result of the procedure. This principle is known as the “double effect.”

Though it may at times be necessary to induce delivery early to save the mother’s life, it is not necessary to kill the child intentionally. Every effort should be made to preserve both lives. Killing the child should never be the goal, as it is in every abortion.


The Lie that Life = Health

Many public opinion polls show that a large majority of people do not want to pay for abortions, so pro-abortionists grossly overestimate the alleged “dangers” of pregnancy and childbirth in order to frighten people into supporting public abortion funding. Perpetuating the lie, they define a threat to the life of the mother in the same terms as a threat to her health. This way, abortion when the mother’s life is in danger leads to abortion for any reason at all:

  • Abortionist Michael Burnhill of the National Abortion Federation (NAF) said that a “life of the mother” exception would allow him to perform all abortions he considered “medically necessary,” all those that would preserve a “condition in which one can actively participate in one’s total life.”8
  • According to another author, “A Colorado abortion clinic director claimed that his extensive research showed that carrying a pregnancy to term is about 100 times more life threatening than having an abortion. He, therefore, considered any pregnancy life-threatening and used that as justification, certifying that the mother’s life was endangered.”9
  • Abortionist Jane Hodgson testified under oath: “In my medical judgment, every pregnancy that is not wanted by the patient, I feel there is a medical indication to abort a pregnancy where it is not wanted. In good faith, I would recommend on a medical basis, you understand, that, and it would be 100.… I think they are all medically necessary.… I am considering the woman’s physical, mental, emotional and social and welfare and family and environment and all that.… I am concerned with the quality of life, not physical existence.”10

Hodgson also summarized the general pro-abortion attitude when she said, “A medically necessary abortion is any abortion a woman asks for.”11

In short, pro-abortion advocates can stretch exceptions allowing abortion when the mother’s life is in danger, making this exception cover abortion for any reason.



Due to the principle of the “double effect,” surgical procedures that save the mother’s life while causing the undesired and unintended death of the preborn child are permissible, so it is actually unnecessary to allow an exception for abortion when the mother’s life is in danger.

a mother with her infant lying in bed

Pro-lifers must vigorously oppose the “mother’s life” exception because of the inherent dishonesty of abortionists who expand it to mean abortion on demand. Additionally, if surgical procedures intended to save the life of the mother are labeled “abortions” in those many countries that still have pro-life laws, people will get used to the idea of killing preborn children much more easily, paving the way for a rapid expansion of exceptions and eventual abortion on demand.



[1] Lise Fortier, Medical Director of Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles. Quoted in OB/GYN News, December 1, 1980.

[2] Zbaraz v. Quern, No. 77-C4522 (N.D. Ill, Memo Opinion, June 13, 1978).

[3] Irving Cushner, Professor of Obstetrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution of the United States on October 14, 1981, quoted in The Village Voice, July 16, 1985.

[4] Alan Guttmacher. “Abortion Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” The Case for Legalized Abortion Now [Berkeley, California: Diablo Books], 1967, page 3. Emphasis added.

[5] Bernard Nathanson, M.D. Written statement to the Idaho House of Representatives’ State Affairs Committee, 16 February 1990. Also quoted in “Exceptions: Abandoning ‘The Least of These My Brethren.'” American Life League booklet, 1991, page 22. Emphasis added.

[6] Hymie Gordon, M.D., Director of Medical Genetics, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, October 15, 1974. Emphasis added.

[7] Jasper Williams, Jr., M.D., Bernard Hospital, Chicago, Illinois, Past President of the National Medical Association, address of October 19, 1981. Emphasis added.

[8] Abortionist Michael Burnhill of the National Abortion Federation on the April 22, 1980 “MacNeil/Lehrer Report.” Quoted in “Exceptions: Abandoning ‘The Least of These My Brethren.’” American Life League booklet, 1991, page 24.

[9] “Are Exception Clauses Pro-Life?” ALL about Issues, July-August 1987, pages 25 and 26.

[10] Abortionist Jane Hodgson, transcript, August 3, 1977, at 99-101, McRae v. Califano, 491 F.Supp. 630 (E.D.N.Y. 1980), rev’d sub nom. Harris v. McRae. 100 S. Ct. 2671 (1980).

[11] Human Life International’s Special Report Number 83, August 1991, pages 6 and 7.

Did you find this useful?

Dr. Brian Clowes has been HLI’s director of research since 1995 and is one of the most accomplished and respected intellectuals in the international pro-life movement. Best known as author of the most exhaustive pro-life informational resource volume The Facts of Life, and for his Pro-Life Basic Training Course, Brian is the author of nine books and over 500 scholarly and popular articles, and has traveled to 70 countries on six continents as a pro-life speaker, educator and trainer.


  1. James Howard on May 16, 2019 at 11:21 PM

    Hi Brian,
    Goog article. I joined the Pro-Life movement as a kid back around 1972. It is important to note a fact: a Caesarean birth can ALWAYS save both mom and baby if a medical problem should occur. The result is both are saved and the baby is not directly and intentionally killed.

    • HLI Staff on May 20, 2019 at 10:16 AM

      James, you are very well informed and thank you for the comment. If a mom is seriously ill you are correct, even abortionists say they deliver the baby, because a surgical abortion would take too long! If the baby dies due to premature birth, this is not intended, which is the main point. We always do our best to save both lives.

    • Catherine on September 8, 2021 at 3:18 AM

      BINGO! There is NEVER a need to murder the child to save the life of the mother.

  2. Gregory Kielar on May 19, 2019 at 8:45 AM

    I know that something was wrong with saving the life of the mother, but I wasn’t exactly sure. But now I am and I’m also glad for the information which proves the life of the mother is not in danger because she’s pregnant and the baby does not have to be aborted! I can’t wait to start telling people about this, thank you so much for your information, I knew it!! Married father of 8 expecting our 30th grandchild!!

    • HLI Staff on May 21, 2019 at 12:57 PM

      That’s great – and congratulations!

  3. Elisabeth on June 5, 2019 at 11:56 AM

    Awesome as always, thanks again!!!

  4. Daniel Fairchild on June 27, 2019 at 5:41 PM

    Hi HLI I’m writing an essay on abortion for my Liberal Humanities class and I’m trying to gather facts and figures for both Prolife and Prochoice cases. No need to send me information for the essay as it is due tomorrow, but I would like to know what case you would build for someone who has complications with their pregnancy, both the baby and the mother’s lives are at risk but the mother can not afford to save both herself and her child’s. If she has an abortion her life would be spared but she would be considered a murderer under prolife ideology but if she does not abort her child they both die.
    I am prolife and as I was writing this I thought of a few possible options that would only work if our healthcare system saved lives before asking for the insurance card. I’m interested in hearing your take on these types of cases. Thanks in advance.

  5. HLI Staff on July 25, 2019 at 9:22 AM

    Thanks for the good question, Daniel. The answer is quite simple; if the mother’s health is in critical danger, you deliver the child. If they baby is premature, he/she may or may not survive, but one has to try to save both. This way you treat the mother, and the baby. Incidentally, while we often hear about what if the mother’s life is at risk as a reason given, but in the western world this is an extremely rare case anymore. The vast number of abortions are done for matters of convenience (this isn’t the right time for me, I’m too young, I wanted a different sex, my husband left me, etc.). There is no reason the child should not be delivered than killed, nor a reason not to try and save the mother. As the saying goes, ‘love them both.’

  6. Raj on October 1, 2020 at 12:49 PM

    If the mothers life is at stake, is it okay to abort

  7. HLI Staff on October 2, 2020 at 9:13 AM

    Raj, Due to the principle of the “double effect,” surgical procedures that save the mother’s life while causing the undesired and unintended death of the preborn child are permissible, so it is actually unnecessary to allow an exception for abortion when the mother’s life is in danger.

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