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Posted on February 15, 2011 at 1:07 PM

The current case before a British judge as to whether a mentally disabled woman identified only as “P” should be sterilized has raised the ire of medical ethicists and the disability community. The question that I can’t seem to answer is: “Why?”

As someone who supports the decision to sterilize “P”, I can say that I do so not because I think that there is anything concerning about her genes. What is concerning is that she is unable to care for her own child or herself. It is her incapacity, as a parent and as a decision-maker, that gives her mother, and the British court, the right to make such decisions about her reproductive best interests. If a less drastic measure, such as semi-permanent birth control like IUDs, were available, I would support it. In “P”‘s case, I fear that this might be more burdensome, and less effective in the long term, than sterilization. Why?

“P” has already become pregnant once and has given birth to a child that she cannot care for that is currently under the care of her mother. Her mother has clearly stated that she cannot care for another child if “P” were to become pregnant again. Rather than putting “P” through the mental anguish and physical risk of an abortion or, if the pregnancy were discovered too late, birth and then forcing “P” to give her child up to the state, “P”‘s mother has made the decision that it would be in her best interest to no longer allow her to reproduce. I agree.

Is this “eugenic” as George Annas has suggested in WaPo today? It is eugenic in the sense that we will be, through her sterilization, ensuring that her genes will not propagate to future generations. But is that our intent, our desire in eliminating her reproductive capacity? No. In fact, I would argue that her mother, and society more broadly, is concerned with the well-being of “P” and her potential future offspring rather than the passing on of her genes to future generations whether anyone might deem them good, bad or otherwise.

Summer McGee, PhD

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