NRL News

Former Judge Defends Decision to Order Abortion and Sterilization for Woman with Schizophrenia

by | Feb 22, 2012

By Dave Andrusko

Retired Judge Christina Harms

In a letter sent yesterday to other family court judges in Massachusetts, Christina Harms, the now-retired family court judge who ruled in January that a pregnant woman with schizophrenia should have an abortion and be sterilized strongly defended her decision. Her judgment was subsequently overturned by the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

On January 17, reporting on the Appeals Court’s reversal, the Boston Globe’s Peter Schworm wrote

“Earlier this month, a Norfolk probate judge declared a pregnant woman with schizophrenia incompetent and ordered her to undergo an abortion, stating she could be ‘coaxed, bribed, or even enticed’ into the hospital for the procedure.

“Unbidden, the judge further directed that the 32-year-old woman be sterilized ‘to avoid this painful situation from recurring in the future.’’’

However citing a 1982 ruling by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, the Appeals Court ruled on January 16 that “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.”

Schworm wrote, “In sharp words, yesterday’s decision also denounced the sterilization order, a directive that several legal specialists said they had not heard of in recent memory.” He quoted Appeals Court Judge Andrew Grainger, who wrote, “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.” 

The woman’s mental health condition was never in question, according to Schworm’s accounts. “Mary Moe,” the woman’s pseudonym,  also has bipolar disorder and had been pregnant twice before.

At a hearing in December Harms ruled “the woman was not competent to make a decision about an abortion, citing ‘substantial delusional beliefs,’ and concluded she would choose to abort her pregnancy if she were competent,” Schworm wrote. “Mary Moe” identified herself to court officials as “very Catholic” and said “she would never have an abortion” according to Schworm. One of her two previous pregnancies had been aborted.

Judge Harms “ordered that the woman’s parents be appointed co-guardians to give their consent to the abortion and sterilization,” according to Schworm. “The parents, who have custody of the woman’s son, believe that terminating the pregnancy is in their daughter’s best interests, according to court records.”

But Harms improperly decided the matter of the woman’s competence, the Appeals Court concluded, noting “that a court-appointed specialist had determined that the woman would ‘decide against an abortion if she were competent,’” Schworm wrote. “Without conducting a hearing, Harms found the specialist’s report inconclusive.”

In her letter sent on Monday, Harms unstintingly defended her decision in “a tragic set of circumstances for which no outcome would have been easy or obviously correct.’’ She called the Appeals Court ruling ”simplistic and unfair.” In her letter Harms wrote that “the statements of a person suffering from schizophrenia surely cannot simply be taken at face value.’’

According to Schworm, “Harms said she has requested a meeting with the chief judge of the appeals court to register her objection to the ‘insulting tone’ of the decision.”

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Categories: Abortion