Bioethics Blogs

The Limits of Choice: Abortion and Assisted Dying

Michelle Oberman compares abortion and assisted dying and argues that focusing on the ‘right to choose’ risks ignoring the social and economic factors that shape and constrain our choices.


I’ve watched the trend toward legalizing physician assistance in dying with a vague sense of alarm. My peers, healthy and wealthy, are puzzled by my response. How is this different from abortion, they ask? You’re pro-choice on abortion, so why wouldn’t you be for assisted dying?

Here’s my problem: As much as I support reproductive rights, I am weary of the rhetoric of ‘choice’ as it applies to great swaths of women who have abortions. I’ve spent the past six years studying abortion in the United States, and in countries like El Salvador where abortion is completely banned. The more I’ve learned about why many women have abortions, the less I see abortion as a choice. Abortion is often a coerced response to desperate circumstances.

When we focus on the question of choice – framing the issue as one of individual liberty – we ignore entirely the social and economic factors that shape and constrain choice. Such constraints lead many women to undergo abortions they might otherwise deeply prefer to avoid. The most common reason that women give for seeking an abortion is financial. It is expensive to have a baby, to pay for day care, to feed, clothe, and house a child. For marginally-employed women, having a baby necessarily means plunging themselves and their families deeper into poverty.

We’ve spent decades fighting over abortion, yet we have done little to offset the economic pressures that compel some women to have one.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.