Forced sterilization considered in a UK court

Posted by Doug Pet February 17, 2011
Biopolitical Times

The British Court of Protection says it needs further medical and psychiatric reports before it can rule on whether or not a 21-year-old woman with "significant learning disabilities" should be forcibly sterilized. The woman, identified as "P," is scheduled to give birth to her second child this week via C-section. P's mother, who currently cares for her daughter and grandchild, asked that the court order her daughter to be sterilized to avoid future pregnancies.

P's mother made it very clear that her daughter cannot comprehend that she is unable to care for her own children and that future babies will need to taken under the care of the state. P's mother and father express that they will be unable to care for future grandchildren.

"I want the best for my daughter…We are supporting and helping her, bringing up her children and keeping them together as family unit. Obviously we can't carry on supporting more and more children. She doesn't see anything wrong in her behavior."

P's mother said that they tried to get their daughter to take birth control injections after her first pregnancy, but she refused, and became pregnant again soon after. She thus feels that tubal ligation, an irreversible sterilization procedure, is the best course of action.

Judging from the courts decision to delay proceedings, as well as significant buzz in media and comment forums, it seems that many are struck by the enormous implications of sterilizing someone against their will. Although cases involving a mother and children's physical and social welfare should be looked at closely on a case by case basis, the prospect of using public policy to compel the sterilization of a vulnerable individual, or any individual for that matter, should throw up several red flags.

In the past, discriminatory social ideologies have been channeled through the courts to target vulnerable groups that were seen as "socially problematic," and therefore "unfit" to reproduce. State and national eugenics boards, at their height in the 1920's and 30's, facilitated the forced sterilization of tens of thousands. Especially targeted were poor black women in the American South, Native American women, and individuals (many of them children or teens) deemed to be "feeble-minded," of low IQ, or otherwise "mentally defective." These efforts, which extended to Europe as well, falsely and catastrophically attributed social "problems" to inheritable genetics, and justified eugenic intervention as furthering the "greater social good."

Thankfully, it appears that P's case has not followed this discredited script about "good" or "bad" genes. And although the Court of Protection normally deliberates behind closed doors, this hearing was made public (with protections for P's privacy) due to the "public interest" in understanding the case. A key point that should be made clear to all is that any decision to intervene in P's reproductive behavior is made in the sole interest of her personal health and well being - not because she has "learning difficulties." Any other action would be a violation of her human rights and reproductive freedom, and would perpetuate social injustice for others who are cognitively or otherwise differently-abled.

Chair of Health Law, Bioethics & Human Rights at Boston University, George Annas, noted,

"This is eugenics if they are doing this because she's mentally disabled…This decision needs to be made based on the person's best interests, not the best interests of society or her caregivers."

The Court of Protection must tread extremely carefully in its ruling on this case. Questions of whether or not P is cognitively capable of consenting to sexual intercourse must also be addressed. Other contraceptive methods, which are less invasive and reversible, should certainly be seriously considered, as they surely would be for a person without learning disabilities.

The slippery slope of eugenics emerges when attempts are made to control the reproduction of targeted categories of people. Anything less than the most careful and deliberate effort to avoid such missteps would be a failure to learn the lessons of the horrific history of eugenic sterilization.

*To read the author's interview about P's case in Salon Magazine, click here.

Previously in Biopolitical Times: