A UK court has just ruled that a pregnant intellectually disabled woman who does not want to have an abortion is to be forced to have one.
Sky News buries the lede with the headline “Woman with mental age of child to have abortion, court rules”, but mentions that it’s involuntary further down.
In a ruling, Mrs Justice Lieven said: “I am acutely conscious of the fact that for the State to order a woman to have a termination where it appears that she doesn’t want it is an immense intrusion.
“I have to operate in (her) best interests, not on society’s views of termination.”
The woman suffers from ‘moderately severe’ learning difficulties and a mood disorder. According to the story, she estimated to have “the mental age of six-to-nine year old.” She is 22 weeks pregnant and in the care of an NHS trust. It is apparently unclear how she became pregnant, and a police investigation is trying to establish the circumstances of conception.
The medical specialists caring for her recommended an abortion, despite the fact that she wants to keep the baby, and despite the fact that the woman’s mother – who is Nigerian, and a former midwife – also opposes her having an abortion and has offered to help take care of the baby. A social worker who helps care for the woman is also opposed to her being forced to abort.
The woman would be unable to care for the child on her own and the judge was concerned about the risks posed by the woman’s behavioural and psychological problems.
She said the woman may have to leave home if the baby was placed in the care of the woman’s mother.
This last because the court judged that the woman’s mother couldn’t look after a child in addition to assisting with her daughter’s care. She also ruled out other options:
The child could also potentially be placed into foster care.
The judge said she believed the woman would suffer more distress if the baby was taken away, rather than if it was terminated.
“Pregnancy, although real to her, doesn’t have a baby outside her body she can touch,” she said.
The Judge goes on to say that “I think she would like to have a baby in the same way she would like to have a nice doll.”
Let’s review the facts: an intellectually disabled ethnic minority woman is being forced by a UK court to have an abortion against her will, based on the recommendation of her expert carers, in whose care she became pregnant in the first place in unknown circumstances. Her mother, a midwife, has offered to help care for the child. But in the woman’s best interests, she is to be subjected to a forced abortion.
This is a human rights atrocity, and everyone should be able to agree on this. This should straightforwardly and obviously appal any pro-choice person who cares about bodily autonomy or respecting the agency of women. This is, on pro-choice premises, a clear case of this woman and her choices being used as a means to the end of her own ‘best interests’ as defined by judges and doctors. Her values are being trampled on, and the life of her wanted child ended against her will, despite the presence of abundant resources to help her raise the child.
So far, however, there has been little the story in the media – I’ve found the Sky News story, one from the Daily Mail, and a couple from Catholic papers. I hope more attention gets paid to it, but I know that even if that happens, this will never become a major topic of discussion. It will never be talked about like the death of Savita Halappanaver or the X case. I suspect that, if it’s talked about at all, there will be a handful of pieces condemning it and another handful saying that things are very complicated, recommending that we trust the courts and the experts, and gently encouraging us to look the other way.
And I wonder why. I wonder why all the people who say they favour abortion only in hard cases are so slow to object to cases like this, and so very quiet when they do. I wonder why these violations of women’s dignity don’t matter as much. I wonder why they don’t get the widespread outrage that they deserve. I wonder why people like this judge, relying on ableist arguments to violate a woman’s autonomy, don’t get challenged or campaigned against by pro-choice activists or most journalists. For what it’s worth, Judge Lieven has been an outspoken pro-choice advocate in her past as a lawyer, representing the British Pregnancy Advisory service in a case arguing that women should be able to medically abort their own pregnancies at home rather than going to a hospital. In 2016 she argued that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws violated the UK Human Rights Act, and the following year said that those same laws force people to go through “physical and mental torture”.
This is not just a UK problem either. In Ireland we’re just as good at ignoring abortions where consent is dubious. Think of the case of Miss C, a 13-year-old rape victim who was brought to England for an abortion in 1997 by health board staff and social care workers because she was judged to be suicidal. Years later she described the circumstances of the case in an interview with the Irish Independent (in which she referred to as ‘Mary’):
In the days after the rape, social workers arrived at Mary’s caravan in north Dublin and took her away. She believed she would be home again in 24 hours.
She was taken to Mullingar and placed in foster care with another Traveller family. Slowly, the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months. Before long, she realised nobody was coming to take her home.
Around this time, she developed severe hunger pangs and frequent vomiting. She had no idea what was wrong until one day her foster mother took her to the local GP where she was asked for a urine sample.
The next morning, she was told she was pregnant. She was bewildered. “I said: ‘What’s pregnant?'” she recalls. “They said ‘you are having a baby’. I didn’t understand how I could be. A few weeks later, they came and took me on a plane to London.
“The next day, I was taken to a building. All I remember next was being wheeled on a trolley and screaming with the pain.
“They gave me an injection, and when I woke up, the pain had gone. Eventually they told me the baby was dead.”
In the days before her abortion, her parents had taken a legal action against the State in a bid to stop their daughter being taken to England. A psychiatrist for the Eastern Health Board insisted that Mary would kill herself if she did not have an abortion. The couple, however, failed in their action and the abortion went ahead.
Miss C was was taken into care after the abortion where she alleges that she was regularly drugged with the anti-depressant Largactil against her will: “four or five staff would come in, hold me down and give me an injection in the bum. That was horrific because it brought back memories of the rape. Eventually I ended up taking the tablets because I didn’t want to be held down any more.”
She regrets the abortion and had this to say about the way her case was publicly discussed: “My name – the C-case girl – is brought up on radio and TV all the time these days as if I’m an ad for abortion. The X-case girl never had an abortion in the end so we don’t know how it would have affected her, but, for me, it has been harder to deal with than the rape.”
As soon as the actual circumstances of her abortion became clear, interest in Miss C basically dried up. Other than that Independent interview and a Six One News appearance that barely mentioned the forced abortion, there was virtually no serious discussion of her case or allegations.
If we really cared about women, cases like Miss C’s, and that of the woman with a disability in the UK, would be subjects of grief and rage. Outside of anti-abortion circles they are not: and pro-choice people of good faith have a lot of questions to ask themselves about why that is.
Update: Shortly after this blog was written, this story was reported on by a variety of publications, and shortly after that the decision was overturned.