Conflating Morality With Legality

Note: post from the old blog
I started thinking about this topic when I was discussing the legality of C-sections in Italy with a colleague of mine. I was unaware of this, but apparently it is technically illegal in Italy for a woman to give birth via C-section unless there is a legitimate medical reason for doing so. Given the rather loose language that entails, and the fact that there are far more C-sections being performed in the South compared to Northern Italian states, leads us to believe that if a woman really wants to have one, she can find a doctor who will be willing to schedule her one. The point of disagreement between us was based on whether or not this law should exist at all.

Her perspective on this is that, while she has absolutely no problem with avoiding a vaginal birth for legitimate health concerns (a baby not turning, heart problems etc.), she believes that no woman should be allowed to simply opt for a C-section simply because of fear of a vaginal birth, stating studies that have found a correlation between cesarean births and an increased risk of certain chronic illnesses. It is her opinion that pregnancy comes with certain responsibilities, one of which is giving birth as nature intended, should you have a completely normal and healthy pregnancy. I of course disagreed, hence my writing this post.
I realized that all too often we conflate what we believe is immoral with what we believe should be illegal, and this is not, nor should it be always the case. Of course there is significant overlap between the two concepts, but there is also plenty of space for the two things to remain separate. The problem is that morality is inherently subjective, especially when we begin to dissect these kinds of minor issues, while the law is objectively applied across the board. It is therefore important to not allow one’s own opinion about the morality of something to affect a law which would be applied to everyone without good supporting reasons.


I disagreed with her reasoning because, essentially, I believe it comes down to bodily autonomy. Either someone has control over their own body, or they don’t. It’s the same reason why I think it doesn’t matter whether or not someone thinks abortion is immoral, it should still be legal. While I concede that there is evidence that C-sections can lead to increased risk of certain kinds of illness, so can maternal obesity, gestational weight gain and, ever so importantly, drinking, but we don’t go around criminalizing any of these behaviors simply because they bring an increased risk of harm to the fetus. We rely on educating women on the facts and dangers associated with certain behaviors but, ultimately, we trust them as adults to make their own decisions regarding their body and their life. To me, whether or not I think it is moral for a woman to opt for a C-section out of fear, her legal right to do so should not be in question.


  1. says

    This works in several directions:
    You get people arguing that things they consider immoral should be illegal, and this applies from actions where I agree they’re shitty behaviour like cheating on your spouse* to things I find to be morally neutral to positive, like having sex before marriage. I will admit that I was a judgemental naturalistic fallacy misogynist birth magic asshole at one point (I got better), but even back then I didn’t think it should be illegal for a woman to have a “frivolous C-section”.

    On the other hand you got people who think that just because it’s legal nobody gets to tell you off for your shitty behaviour, like getting on my nerves on Twitter or grabbing a woman’s ass in public**

    *Not to conflate with consensual poly

    **Yes, that’s actually legal in Germany. It only becomes illegal after you start fighting back

  2. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    If/when there is strong evidence that C-section increases risks for the woman or the fetus, I wouldn’t mind if women who want to opt for a “frivolous” C section are warned about those risks. As they should be warned about any other risky procedure. But I agree with both of you in that selective C section should not be illegal.

    How to determine whether something that is considered immoral should also be illegal? I don’t know and I don’t think I or anyone else could come up with a consistent definition. It is just something that needs to be judged on case by case basis.
    (somewhat off topic:Another point where this disagreement is common (and I hope you’ll write a post about that, I’d be interested in your cross-cultural perspective) is free speech.)

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      ooo free speech is a very tricky one. I might write a post about that in future, but it requires a lot of thinking and research, as the laws regarding that in numerous countries are murky and generally based on very different cultural, religious and historical contexts.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    the law is objectively applied across the board

    That’s hilarious.

    Another element to consider is that opting for a C-sec is often a choice afforded only to those who can, er, afford it. (My aunt was a midwife, and if asked would confirm strongly that “too posh to push” was very much a thing – i.e. C-sec being disproportionately an option exercised by the more affluent.)

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      In Italy we have universal health care, medical costs of giving birth are covered, no one pays out of pocket for C-sections or hospital stays. In fact the North is far more affluent than the South and theyre the ones who have the fewest C-sections, so if anything you could make the opposite argument in the Italian context.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    To clarify: my aunt was a midwife in the NHS in the UK – so none (or very few) of her patients paid for their C-sections. Nevertheless, it was disproportionately the sharp-elbowed articulate middle classes who ended up getting them.

        • thoughtsofcrys says

          That’s an interesting point. Personally, I could just do with a whole lot less judging of pregnant women. It’s a constant nit-picking and oh I can’t believe you did this and oh I can’t believe you did that you’re going to be a horrible mother shame on you for fearing something that most women say is the most horrifically painful thing you can ever experience blah blah blah… how about treating grown women as adults, keeping them well informed, then trust they are capable of making their own decisions? I know, shocking!

  5. 3kramer says

    For many women, a c-section is the safest way to give birth as a natural birth would have a higher probability of resulting in permanent damage, disability or death to either mother or child. For most woman in the developed world, giving birth is the most dangerous thing they will do in their lifetime. The natural birthers ignore the very real preventable tragedies that natural births cause every single day.

  6. silverfeather says

    Agreed! A pregnant person should be able to discuss all of their options, including the risks and benefits of those options, throughout their pregnancy. Decisions should be made by the pregnant person and the medical professionals advising them, and will be different on a case by case basis. And everyone else needs to keep their nose out of it if they are unable to be supportive.

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