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Parental obligation and compelled caesarean section: careful analogies and reliable reasoning about individual cases
  1. Elselijn Kingma1,2,
  2. Lindsey Porter3
  1. 1 Department of Philosophy, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK
  2. 2 Department of Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology, Eindhoven, The Netherlands
  3. 3 Law School, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Elselijn Kingma, Philosophy, University of Southampton, Southampton SO17 1BF, UK; e.m.kingma{at}


Whether it is morally permissible to compel women to undergo a caesarean section is a topic of longstanding debate. Despite plenty of arguments against the moral permissibility of a forced caesarean section, the question keeps cropping up. This paper seeks to scrutinise a particular moral argument in favour of compulsion: the appeal to parental obligation. We present what we take to be a distillation of the basic form of this argument. We then argue that, in the absence of an exhaustive theory of parental obligation, the question of whether a labouring woman is morally obliged to undergo emergency surgery—and especially the further question of it is morally permissible for third parties to compel this—cannot be answered via ready-made theory. We propose that the most viable option for settling both questions is by analogy. We follow earlier writers in presenting an analogous case—that of fathers being compelled to undergo non-consensual invasive surgery to save their children—but expand the analogy by considering objections that appeal to the ownership of the fetus. We offer two lines of response: (1) the parthood view of pregnancy and (2) chimaera dad. We argue that it is clear in the analogous case that compulsion cannot be justified. We also offer this analogy as a useful tool for assessing whether mothers have a moral duty to undergo caesarean sections, both in general and in particular cases, even if such a duty is insufficient to warrant compulsion.

  • autonomy
  • coercion
  • future child disability
  • obstetrics and gynaecology
  • right to refuse treatment

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  • Contributors Authors jointly wrote paper after developing and agreeing general shape of argument; taking turns to rewrite drafts; equal distribution of input and labour.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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