LONDON — A British court has ordered an abortion for a mentally disabled woman against her and her mother’s wishes, with the judge calling the decision “heartbreaking” but in the best interests of the woman, who is 22 weeks pregnant.
The unidentified woman, who lives in London, is in her 20s and has the mental capacity of a 6- to 9-year-old child, according to evidence presented Friday at the court in London. The circumstances of the pregnancy were unclear, the court was told, and a police investigation was underway, according to news reports.
The decision was first revealed by the Press Association and other British news media, including The Catholic News Agency. The woman and her family were not identified, and neither her family nor her lawyers could be reached for comment. But a spokesman for the court confirmed public details of the case by email on Sunday, including the court proceeding and the judge’s comments.
Justice Nathalie Lieven handed down the decision at the Court of Protection, which hears cases on issues relating to people who are considered to lack the mental capability to make decisions for themselves.
“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,” Justice Lieven said in her decision.
But the judge said she had to act in the woman’s “best interests, not on society’s views of termination.”
The British charity Life, which says its mission is to create a society that “has the utmost respect for all human life from fertilization,” said in a Facebook post that the decision was “truly horrendous.” Commentators on the site described it as “terrible” and “devastating.”
“That is wrong on every level; doesn’t mean baby will have learning difficulties,” another person wrote on the Facebook page of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.
A spokeswoman for the British group Abortion Rights, which she said campaigned “to keep options open for the many women who willingly choose to end their pregnancies,” described the case in a telephone call on Sunday as not unprecedented but “really sad and complex.”
The group’s chairwoman, Kerry Abel, said in an email statement: “As heartbreaking as this case is, it is opportunistic for antichoice organizations to use it to attack a woman’s right to choose. One in three women will have an abortion in the U.K. for many, many individual reasons, and we shouldn’t undermine free, safe, legal abortion based on one difficult case.”
The woman was under the care of a National Health Service trust, which sought the court’s permission for doctors to perform the abortion, the court was told. The council that employs the social worker had also asked for a decision.
Both the woman and her mother, identified by news reports as a former midwife from Nigeria, are against terminating the pregnancy, with the older woman offering to care for the child, according to the court and news media reports. The woman’s lawyers and a social worker also objected to terminating the pregnancy.
It was not immediately clear whether the woman and her lawyers had the option of appealing the decision.
Under Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, abortions can be performed up to the 24th week of pregnancy. A section of the abortion act allows the termination of a pregnancy if there is a significant risk of the baby’s being born seriously disabled. Otherwise, abortions must take place during the first six months of pregnancy.
The Disability Rights Commission denounced that portion of the act in 2001, calling it discriminatory and “offensive to many people.”
According to the latest statistics from Britain’s Department of Health and Social Care, there were 200,608 abortions by residents in England and Wales last year, a 4 percent rise compared with 2017, the highest number on record. (The figure rose to 205,295 when nonresidents were counted.)
Last year, the British government announced that women in England would for the first time be legally allowed to take an abortion pill at home to terminate pregnancies, following in the footsteps of Scotland and Wales.
The judge in the Court of Protection said she made her decision based on consideration of the abortion law, the 2005 Mental Capacity Act and evidence presented at the hearing. There was no evidence in this case that the woman’s fetus is impaired.
But the court was told that the woman had been given a diagnosis of a “moderately severe” learning disorder and a mood disorder.
The jurist said that though she was aware that the woman wanted to keep the baby, she was not sure the woman had any sense of what having a baby “meant.”
“I think she would like to have a baby in the same way she would like to have a nice doll,” the judge said.
The judge noted the risks posed by the woman’s behavioral and psychological problems, and suggested that the grandmother, who vowed to care for the child, might have to leave the mother and the home at some point.
She also said she thought the woman would suffer more if the baby was brought to term and taken away to foster care or for adoption than if pregnancy was terminated.
The woman “would suffer greater trauma from having a baby removed,” the judge said, adding, “It would at that stage be a real baby.”