File this in the really, they can do that? category: A judge in Massachusetts tried to order a mentally ill pregnant woman to have an abortion, and thereafter be sterilized. Thankfully, an appeals court intervened.
According to the Boston Globe, the 32-year-old pregnant woman, identified by the pseudonym Mary Moe, was schizophrenic, bipolar and had been hospitalized several times. Earlier this month, judge Christina Harms declared her incompetent, and ordered her to have an abortion, even though she was Catholic and opposed it. The judge said she could be “coaxed, bribed, or even enticed” into hospital for the surgery. He also directed that she be sterilized “to avoid this painful situation from recurring in the future.”
Whoa, right? Even if the woman was incompetent or unable to care for a child, the judge could certainly have ruled that, instead of having an abortion against her wishes, she give the baby up for adoption. I’m not one of those abortions-are-bad-because-all-babies-could-be-adopted! types, but it does seem like a pretty good option when a woman doesn’t want an abortion but can’t care for a child. And I’m pretty sure forced sterilization is never okay.
The state’s appeals court struck down the decision, writing:
“The personal decision whether to bear or beget a child is a right so fundamental that it must be extended to all persons, including those who are incompetent.’’
It also balked at the sterilization order, “a directive that several legal specialists said they had not heard of in recent memory,” according to the Globe.
“No party requested this measure, none of the attendant procedural requirements has been met, and the judge appears to have simply produced the requirement out of thin air.”
Of course in situations like these there needs to be balance between respecting the reproductive and bodily autonomy rights of mentally ill women, and the interests of any children they might conceive. And there is the health of unborn baby in utero to consider—Moe apparently refuses to even acknowledge she is pregnant or get obstetrical care. But if we started policing how much care or testing every pregnant woman receives … well, as Jezebel’s Anna North notes, that’s a slippery slope:
Abortion politics get complicated when the pregnant person is mentally ill or very young — but when we start taking away the right to choose based on our own view of mental competence, we go down a very slippery slope. A fourteen-year-old girl needs the right to carry her pregnancy to term, even if her family doesn’t like it — and similarly, we can’t start stripping away women’s reproductive rights because they have schizophrenia. [...] Sadly, this country has a long history of forcibly sterilizing those the government deems “feeble-minded” or otherwise defective. Part of atoning for that crime is to make sure that we stay out of the business of deciding who’s worthy of having a kid.
Besides which, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are not untreatable. Even severely mentally ill women can get better. Sometimes mental illness is even triggered or compounded by pregnancy.
I don’t know much about the laws (or ethical thinking) on making women in situations like these get an IUD, but that seems like a potential solution—IUDs are safe, long-lasting and reversible. And women who are truly a danger to themselves or their fetuses while pregnant could be placed under supervised care. At any rate, there are less extreme ways than abortion and sterilization to look out for the health of even the most severely mentally ill women and their unborn children.