LONDON, June 25, 2019—A woman in her 20s in the United Kingdom was recently ordered to have an abortion against her wishes on the basis of her mental disability. Fortunately, this decision was overturned following an appeal by the woman’s mother.
Requiring a woman to have an abortion violates several international human rights instruments. In 2013 the Special Rapporteur on Torture to the United Nations Human Rights Council characterized both overriding the choices of people with disabilities in healthcare contexts and forced abortions as torture.
Under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the U.K. is a party to, people with disabilities have the right to make decisions about their own reproduction (art. 23(1)), a right not to be treated differently by providers on the basis of their disability (art. 25(f)) and the right to informed consent in their healthcare (art. 25(d)). It also states that a parent’s disability is not a reason to separate a child from a parent’s care.
Health service doctors applied to the Court of Protection, which hears cases related to people who are considered to lack mental capacity, to perform an abortion on the woman, whose name has been withheld, based on the view that abortion would be less traumatizing for her than giving birth. The woman’s mother and her social worker agreed that they thought the abortion would be more traumatizing for her than giving birth, and her mother stated her willingness to care for her grandchild.
Despite this, and despite the general reluctance of courts to require unwanted medical procedures that do not impact public health, Justice Nathalie Lieven stated that abortion was in the woman’s best interests, over and against her express wishes. Justice Lieven took the position that abortion would be less traumatizing both than childbirth and than losing custody of a child later. She also expressed her belief that the woman, who is considered to have a mental capacity similar to a child aged six through nine as well as a mood disorder, did not understand the meaningful difference between a child and a doll. Reports have emerged that the doctors told the woman, that she would go to sleep and not have a baby in her tummy anymore, but would be given a new doll.
This decision, now overturned on appeal, reflects the dangers of disability discrimination, in which the dignity and rights of people with disabilities are disregarded in the name of their best interests, even when they go against the rights of the person herself. This is a violation of basic rights to self-determination and bodily integrity, and a misuse of judicial authority to impose a controversial procedure on a woman who did not want one simply because she has disabilities.
The protection of the vulnerable is the duty of every person, and law must be founded on the dignity of the human person. Although some people with disabilities may need special protections and assistance, their wishes should always be taken into account. The troubling circumstances under which a woman who lacks mental capacity became pregnant must be investigated, but they cannot be undone or remedied by ending the life of her child.
The woman’s mother appealed the decision to order an abortion. World Youth Alliance is pleased that the Court of Appeal has respected the dignity and rights of the woman in this case in its decision to overturn the order to require her to have an abortion.