Reproductive Rights of the Disabled

A fascinating story is developing in Chicago. A 26-year old woman’s guardian is petitioning a court to allow her to forcefully sterilize the woman. The guardian argues that because her ward is sexually active and could not take care of a child on her own, she should be sterilized through tubal ligation. The case raises issues about the rights of the disabled, of course. Should men and women who are deemed incompetent to take care of themselves be allowed to have children? If not, what means should be used to prevent their becoming pregnant, if any? Does forceful tubal ligation violate the rights of this woman?
The problem runs even deeper. Under the law, the woman’s guardian is required to care for her ward. Her job is to protect her like she would any minor child, and guardians are therefore given broad legal rights (much like parents) to make decisions on behalf of their wards. Therefore, we see here a conflict between the autonomy of the woman and the powers of the guardian.
Within bioethics, we typically recognize the value of autonomy. This basic principle of freedom is a means of granting individuals the right to make decisions concerning their own health care. Generally, this means that all competent individuals have the right to refuse any medical treatment. However, there are exceptions to the rule: parents have the right to make medical decisions for children, states and cities have the right to make medical decisions for their prisoners, and guardians have the right to make medical decisions for incompetent individuals under their supervision (an incompetent individual is one that lacks the mental or physical faculties to rationally decide for themselves).
This right to interfere with a person’s autonomy is generally known as paternalism. It is a fitting name, since the root word refers to the paternal (or parental) power over a minor child.


Filed under: Bioethics, Uncategorized

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