by Martin Newland LEADING Catholic figures expressed concern this week at the decision by the Law Lords to go ahead with the sterilisation of 17 year old Jeanette whose mental handicap they said would make pregnancy "an unmitigated disaster."
"The decision is a very sad reflection of English Law and medical practice," said Mgr Michael Connelly, Secretary for the Commission on Bio-Ethical Issues for the Catholic Bishops' • Conference of England and Wales.
He explained that people were always on "dangerous ground" when attempting to judge the quality of life of others, especially when such an irreversible decision, as sterilisation was being made.
"Pregnancy is not the worst thing in the world and there are a whole lot of other evils which can affect the child sexually, such as molestation by those seeking to take advantage of her, and even venereal desease," said Mgr Connelly.
He also pointed out that whereas the case could pose a dangerous precedent, the decision of the Law Lords to in future make sterilisations of minors the exclusive preserve of the High Court in fact represented a "tightening up" of current procedures.
"Before parents and doctors could get together and sterilise a child. Now procedures used to decide over wards of court will apply right across the board," Mgr Connelly told the Catholic Herald.
Worries of a different sort were expressed by Nicholas Coote, Assistant General Secretary to the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.
"I am concerned at the apparent straightforwardness of the case. One moment they are saying Jeanette practically needs to be kept in a padded cell and the next they are championing her rights as a free, independent, human being," said Mr Coote.
He also doubted whether the affair warranted the "last resort" of sterilisation pointing out that the girl was on the way to an adult training course and apparently could wash herself and cope with menstruation.
Responding to Lord Hailsham's comment after the decision that pregnancy would be "gravely detrimental to the amenity and quality of her life" Mr Coote said: "We must not always assume that people are untrainable and we must accept that our standards of awareness and behaviour cannot be simply imposed on a handicapped person."
Both Mgr Connelly and Mr Coote were worried by the fact that Jeannette's freedom may have been impaired for reasons of convenience on the part of her carers, a charge that the Law Lords vigourously denied when defending their decision.
Simon Lee, Lecturer in law at King's College, London said that the affair is another reminder that there needs to be set up a government commission for medical law and ethics to provide set guidelines for such cases in the future. "Otherwise we will just be lurching from one disaster to another in future," he said.
MENCAP has pointed the finger at an uncaring society which, in the interests of finance and manpower, forces legal measures that will provide an immediate result.
In the words of MENCAP'S Director of Marketing and Communications, Mr Alan Leighton, "It is an indictment of society that parents, care workers and guardians feel that they cannot cope and so have to resort to such medical solutions."
He referred to a case a few years ago where grandparents were forced to allow their child of 11 years to have a hysterectomy because they felt they could not cope with impending menstruation.
"Those who are closest to the child in question should be made to feel that they have the support of the community and they should be persuaded out of seeing sterilisation and hysterectomies as the solution to their problems", said Mr Leighton.