Earlier this month, a 32-year-old pregnant woman, known only as Mary Moe, narrowly avoided being subjected to a forced abortion and sterilization–at the hands of her own parents.
The story has outraged thousands on either side of the political aisle. Moe, who suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar mood disorder, was being treated in a Massachusetts hospital. When she became pregnant, doctors were purportedly concerned that her medications could harm the unborn child. So they recommended an abortion.
The problem is, Moe is a Catholic, who has expressed vocal opposition to abortion.
Since Moe planned to keep her baby, her parents, in conjunction with the doctors, filed a petition with the local courts, which would give them the power to force her to get an abortion.
Incredibly, Massachusetts justice Christina Harms not only granted the petition, she went a step further. She told Moe’s parents that it didn’t matter how they got Moe to have the abortion, even if it meant she had to be “coaxed, bribed, or even enticed … by ruse.” Not only this, but she directed that whatever medical facility performed the abortion go ahead and sterilize Moe … without her permission. According to recently released court documents, Harms simply asserted that “if Moe were competent, she ‘would not choose to be delusional,’ and therefore would opt for an abortion in order to benefit from medication that otherwise could not be administered due to its effect on the fetus.”
In other words, Justice Harms didn’t just assume that she knew what Moe was thinking. She assumed that she knew what Moe would be thinking if she wasn’t subject to a mental dysfunction. And on that basis, she was willing to not only mandate the killing of Moe’s unborn child, but the destruction of Moe’s reproductive system.
Fortunately for Moe (and her baby), the decision caused an uproar … and was overturned by the state appeals court. Appellate Justice Andrew Grainger openly questioned Harm’s reasoning pointing out that “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.”
Interested parties across the state also chimed in on the situation, including Democratic state senator Susan Fargo, who told the Boston Herald that, “it bothers me as a woman, that a woman can’t make a decision about her body.” Advocates for the mentally ill also went on the record, including Elyn Saks of USC, who said that “simply having a diagnosis of schizophrenia or any other mental illness is not a basis for sterilization in and of itself. It’s just sheer prejudice.”
Saks has a special interest in this case: she lives with schizophrenia herself.
The most positive side to this story may, in fact, be the extent of the controversy it has garnered. There was a time in this country, not very long ago, when mandating that a mentally ill woman be subjected to an involuntary abortion/sterilization would scarcely have raised an eyebrow. After all, our own Margaret Sanger was one of the world’s original eugenicists, recommending forced sterilizations for the improvement of the human species, in order to “cut down production of its least desirable members.” Forced sterilization was regularly practiced on racial minorities and those considered mentally unfit until embarrassingly recently (the last known forced sterilization in the United States took place in 1981).
We have made such leaps and bounds in this country when it comes to overall racial attitudes as well as attitudes towards those with disabilities. But cases like this one should serve as a warning: not all of the old bigotry and fear are gone. We must remain vigilant until these abhorrent practices are firmly and irrevocably buried in the past.