Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 225–244 | Cite as

Obstetric Autonomy and Informed Consent



I argue that public officials and health workers ought to respect and protect women’s rights to make risky choices during childbirth. Women’s rights to make treatment decisions ought to be respected even if their decisions expose their unborn children to unnecessary risks, and even if it is wrong to put unborn children at risk. I first defend a presumption of medical autonomy in the context of childbirth. I then draw on women’s birth stories to show that women’s medical autonomy is often ignored during labor. Medical interventions are performed during childbirth without women’s consent. Childbirth is risky and some coercive medical interventions may be understood as attempts to protect children and to prevent mothers from acting impermissibly. However, even if it is wrong to make risky choices during childbirth, women have rights to do wrong in these cases. Therefore, coercive medical interventions are impermissible during childbirth and institutions should adopt specific protections for obstetric autonomy.


Childbirth Rights Informed consent Moral risk 



I thank the anonymous referees of the journal, participants from the University of Hamburg 2012 “New Perspectives on Medical Paternalism,” workshop, and Javier Hidalgo for very valuable comments and discussion of earlier versions of this paper. I also thank Tammy Tripp for her editorial assistance.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of RichmondRichmondUSA

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