can be sterilised is to be challenged before the Law Lords. Rosemary McCloskey and Fr Anthony Paris of Westminster Diocesan Pastoral Office for the Handicapped offer a wider context
Stressing ability not disability
RECENTLY the Court of Appeal authorised an application to sterilise a 17 year old girl. Many people are greatly disturbed by this legal precedent.
For those who value life and hold it dear, among whom the Catholic community form a large part, the preservation of life is vital; and much has been achieved in this area.
But for the preservation of life to be meaningful there must be a commitment to ensuring a continuing quality of life. A quality of life to be enjoyed by all people, regardless of status or social labels. A quality of life appropriate to a person's age and life experience. A quality of life that allows for development, change and maturity. For many of us this is an intrinsic human right, and any infringement of it is unacceptable.
Yet we have heard that the recent authorisation to apply for sterilisation would be "in the girl's best interests" because she is becoming "sexually aware", and that any pregnancy would be "disastrous". The view that it is in her best interests to be sterilised because she may be abused is self-defeating. Sterilisation will not reduce, but only conceal such abuse, and contrary to being in the girl's best interests it will be highly damaging.
That she warrants sterilisation because she is becoming sexually aware might well frighten any 17-year-person who themselves may be experiencing a growing sexual awareness that is a normal part of healthy development. And for a pregnancy to be described or even thought of as a "disaster" severely insults and devalues not only that new life, but also the mother at the very time when encouragement and support are most necessary.
The argument advanced in justifying sterilisation is that the girl only has a mental age of a five year old. Five year olds have a remarkable ability to learn and understand given the right environment. But in this case the five years old mentality has 17 years of life experience and is wanting and feeling what many 17 year olds want and feel. Only they, hopefully, will not subject to be the indignity of sterilisation which is irreversible.
For those who value and strive for a quality of life, the label mental handicap must not obscure the reality that it is a person who is mentally handicapped; who requires at least the same care and attention we all enjoy.
The recent court ruling endorses an uninformed view that a person with a mental handicap will not mature. However, people with mental handicaps have potential for social and spiritual development well beyond what we give them credit for; given the right quality of training and support in the community. A label must not give any right to divide the population into those who are fit to reproduce and those who are not.
The way in which we talk to and portray people with a mental handicap must reflect and be respectful of a person's intrinsic dignity and value within the local community. We are encouraged to treat people in the way that is appropriate to their age and acceptable to their peer groups, focussing on ability rather than disability. When people are grouped or congregated together we are spurred on to seek ordinary ways in which the person is seen and accepted as an individual rather than as a member of a group.
The majority of men and women with a mental handicap are not in the care of locaf authorities or voluntary agencies, but live at home with their parents. It is well-known that the biggest single concern of parents is what will become of their son or daughter when they are no longer able to protect their interests.
The more successful parents are in the childhood years in stimulating, being involved with the caring for their child, the more difficult it is for those same parents to be emotionally capable of making adjustments for the development into adulthood that has subtly taken place in their son or daughter. We, after all, remain children for life to our parents.
Why then should parents who invest so much in a child with a mental handicap or disability be frequently blamed for being over-protective, over anxious, avoiding risk taking, unless the same Christian community which so values the life of an unborn child also supports that adult and its family in the transition to adulthood.
Before a parent is blamed for wishing to see a daughter sterilised we need as a Christian community to think about what we are able to offer parents with young people in that difficult stage of transition.
Parents tell us that they need moral and spiritual support, advice, information, the opportunity to exchange worries and discover the best help available which will not militate against their Christian beliefs, but allow them to cope with a difficult and sometimes complex situation that they have to face in isolation from the informed Christian view.
We would like to see regular working opportunities made available to parents and young adults with learning difficulties so they feel they have the support and interest of the Church informing them in a way they can appreciate.
Space limits what can be said and discussed here and we are aware that not all issues are covered. It may be helpful to know that practical and spiritual help and assistance is offered to people with a mental handicap and their parents within the Church.