Charlotte Adamson, Durham University
On the 4th February, the Court of Protection ruled that a mother of six should be sterilised for her own safety. The woman concerned, known as DD, is a 36-year-old woman with Autistic Spectrum disorder and a mild to borderline learning disability, with an IQ of 70. She has a ‘tragic and complex’ obstetric history, and has no continuing contact with any of her children, who are all raised by permanent carers. She is currently in a long-term relationship, which includes a sexual relationship, with a male partner who has a significant learning disability and also displays some traits of an Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
The Court of Protection had previously been required to rule on welfare applications under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 in relation to DD’s capacity to make important decisions regarding her sixth pregnancy and short-term contraception. In this case, they had to consider whether DD had capacity to consider and make decisions concerning long-term contraception and/or therapeutic sterilisation, and if she lacked capacity, to determine what would be in her best interests with regard to these. Mr Justice Cobb came to the conclusion that DD does lack capacity to make these decisions, and that it is in her best interests to be sterilised. While this may be justified in extreme circumstances, Rebecca Schiller, the co-chairwoman of the human rights in childbirth charity Birthrights, has commented that ‘taking away a person’s ability to have a child is truly draconian’, and warned that immense care must be taken to safeguard the rights of people with mental conditions.
The decision that sterilisation is in the best interests of DD seems to have been based on the risks that a future pregnancy might pose. The risks of either placenta accrete, placenta praevia or uterine rupture in labour and the consequences (including likely death of DD and the infant) were estimated to be at least 30%. However, this was stated to be unpredictable. Mr Justice Cobb also considered other possible contraception, and wishes expressed by DD in the past. While it appears that DD has been consistent throughout her adult life in her resistance to the IUD/IUS, she has also at times stated that she would prefer to remain on Depo-Provera injections, however Mr Justice Cobb believed this was not suitable as her recent history shows she is inconsistent at accepting this. In the past, DD showed a keenness for sterilisation, but her consultant was not satisfied that she had any consistency of reasoning. More recently, she has asserted her personal autonomy in relation to her body, and is reported to have said that “if I cannot work my body and be who I am there is no point in being on this planet … “. She has also stated that “my body is mine”, asserted “human rights” in relation to it and claimed that sterilisation would leave her feeling “empty and unhappy”.
The difficulty with this decision is whether the judge was too willing to sanction an invasive sterilisation procedure that will violate DD’s autonomy. Although this particular case is complex due to DD’s resistance to medical interference, it is argued that less intrusive methods should be tried first. Furthermore, in relation to findings of incapacity where treatment is refused during late pregnancy, the argument has been made that while the courts claim to be acting in the best interests of the patient, they have always ruled in favour of life, and there will remain some cynicism about whether they are acting according to their declared principles until they actually let a woman and her unborn child die as a result of refusing medical treatment. Is this also a case of the court equating best interests to a ruling in favour of life at any cost?
Female Solicitors Outnumber Males in the Republic of Ireland
Catherine Ravenscroft, Durham University
The Law Society of Ireland announced this week that female practising solicitors now outnumber their male counterparts in the Republic. The direct general of the Society, Ken Murphy, said: ‘There were exactly 4,623 female practising solicitors and exactly 4,609 male practising solicitors at the close of 2014.’ The society also claims that, to their knowledge, this is a world first for any legal profession in the world.
Teri Kelly, the Law Society of Ireland’s director of representation and member services, described the new figures as a “major landmark”. The first female solicitor was only admitted into the profession in 1923 and, as the latest figures demonstrate, the profession has come a long way since then. She attributes this development to the nature of the profession, stating that it appeals to a lot of women because it is “all about helping people”. While such developments are inherently worthy of praise, if such a statement is to be supported it may be worth questioning why similar changes are not taking place in other countries. Indeed, other working solicitors questioned over these new figures stated that there are still changes to be made to make the legal profession more women-friendly.
The achievements for gender equality in Ireland are significant. They should be praised for what they represent, namely a recognition of professional equality. On the other hand, they should not be over stated. They are but a first step and more needs to be done in terms of positive reform before this change can be reflected in other countries.
‘Woman to Woman’: Labour’s Pink Van Campaign
Sarah Thin, Durham University
Earlier this month, the Labour Party of England and Wales launched their new ‘Woman to Woman’ campaign which aims to target female voters across the country. Controversially, this will involve a team of female Labour MPs touring 70 marginal constituencies in a pink van in an attempt to speak with women voters: to ‘have a conversation about the kitchen table, around the kitchen table’. They are supposedly the ideal electoral target as, apparently, women tend to make their minds up later as to who they will vote for, and tend more towards being swing voters.
Credit where credit is due, Labour is to be applauded for its efforts; while still behind the Greens in terms of the number of female candidates, they are well ahead of the Conservative and Liberal Democrats; they have continued against fierce opposition to use all women shortlisting to improve female representation in politics; and unlike other parties, ‘Labour actually has a women’s campaign.’
The pink van was certainly a mistake. The media response has been scathing; at the time of writing an ongoing Guardian poll shows that 83% of respondents think it is patronising. There has been a great deal of discussion over whether the use of colour is empowering or insulting.
But the real problem with this campaign runs deeper. Not only does it treat women as a homogenous group – ‘the incessant, bellowing message that all women are the same’ – as if we all hold the same opinions and care about the same issues. It treats women’s opinions in general as a side issue, separate from the general election campaign. In many ways this is not an exercise in inclusion, but in exclusion. To the extent that the campaign aims ‘to find out what women would want to see from a Labour government’, this laudable objective is hindered by the fact that the agenda is dictated by what the Labour establishment consider to be ‘women’s issues’, as if they were different from the issues of the other half of the population: childcare, family care, equal pay, tackling domestic violence…
Increasing women’s (and other groups’) participation in politics is hugely important. However, in trying to overcome the inequality so prevalent in our society, it is essential that we avoid reflecting and bowing to unrepresentative societal norms thereby reinforcing the gender stereotypes that we are trying to combat.