The ethics of direct and indirect referral for termination of pregnancy

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2008 Sep;199(3):232.e1-3. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2008.06.007. Epub 2008 Jul 29.


Referral of pregnant patients for termination of pregnancy by physicians morally opposed to the procedure is ethically controversial, with polarized positions taken by physician organizations. Based on the ethical principles of beneficence and respect for autonomy, we establish the distinction between direct and indirect referral. Direct referral is beneficence based and requires the referring physician to ensure that the referral occurs. Indirect referral is autonomy based, with a beneficence-based component that requires that the physician provide information to the patient about health care organizations that will provide competent medical care. We show that only indirect referral is ethically required in healthy women for termination of an unwanted pregnancy or a pregnancy complicated by fetal anomalies because the indications for this procedure are solely autonomy based. Direct referral for termination of pregnancy is not ethically required but is permissible. Conscience-based objections to direct referral for termination of pregnancy have merit; conscience-based objections to indirect referral do not.

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Induced*
  • Adult
  • Conscience
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Female
  • Gynecology / ethics*
  • Humans
  • Obstetrics / ethics*
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Physicians / ethics*
  • Pregnancy
  • Referral and Consultation / ethics*