By Martin Beckford
A judge has criticised a council for trying to have contraception forced upon a woman with a low IQ, warning that the move had “shades of social engineering”.
Mr Justice Bodey said it would not be “acceptable” for police to take the married woman from her home before doctors sedated her and imposed birth control on her, against her will.
He said the local authority’s plan, to stop the 29 year-old having more children, “would raise profound questions about state intervention in private and family life”.
However the judge agreed that she lacked the mental capacity to make important decisions about her medical treatment, paving the way for the council to make a further request for force to be used.
It is the latest in a series of rulings published by the Court of Protection, which until recently always kept its judgements secret, that highlight the power that town halls and judges have over people with learning difficulties or dementia.
Earlier this year a High Court judge sitting in the Court ruled that a woman suffering from cancer, who has a phobia of hospitals and needles, should be forced against her wishes to undergo life-saving treatment.
The Court, which was given the power to decide on personal welfare cases under the Mental Capacity Act 2005, can also order the withdrawal of life-support from patients as well as making them have abortions or undergo “innovative treatment”.
In the latest case, a council in the Midlands initially wanted to force contraception on a married woman who has an IQ of 53. None of those involved can be named.
She has already had two babies, both of whom were taken away from her at birth by social services and put up for adoption over fears she would not be able to look after them.
The woman, known in the judgement as Mrs A, is now married to a man with an IQ of 65, and attends college as well as taking part in voluntary work.
A year ago social workers feared that she was suffering violence at the hands of her husband, and also that he had forced her to stop taking contraception because he wanted a baby, so the council began Court of Protection proceedings to “protect her interests”.
Solicitors, doctors and psychiatrists interviewed Mrs A in order to find out whether she understood the choices she had regarding birth control, and their implications.
The council argued that she was unable to understand the consequences of not using contraception such as the Pill or a coil, or to envisage what is involved in raising a child.
But the Official Solicitor, representing the woman, argued that such a wide approach would mean many first-time mothers would appear to lack capacity.
The judge agreed that deciding whether a woman “understood enough about the practical realities of parenthood” would veer into a “paternalistic approach”.
The judge said Mrs A’s social worker admitted “there would need to be police involvement” and it would be a “horrendous prospect” for her to be “physically removed from the family home and taken to have contraception under restraint and anaesthesia”.
He declined to make an order as to her best interests, leaving it for the council to assess the couple’s parenting abilities if she did become pregnant and then take “appropriate” steps.
The council said it “reserves the right” to argue that force should be authorised in the future.
But the judge said: “It is obvious on the facts of this case, that any step towards long-term court imposed contraception by way of physical coercion, with its affinity to enforced sterilisation and shades of social engineering, would raise profound questions about state intervention in private and family life. Whilst the issue of the use of force has not been argued out at this hearing I cannot, on these facts, presently see how it could be acceptable.”
David Hewitt, a specialist in mental health law at Weightmans, said: “It seems from the judgment that, at least at the outset, the council thought it might need to have the police enforce an order that the woman take her contraceptive medication. That seems quite striking, yet because of the route the judge chose to take, it’s still in prospect.”