The idea of a non-consensual Caesarean section is palpably absurd to most people. Yet in 21st century Great Britain, this kind of totalitarian control has apparently been both tolerated and justified at local government level and in our highest courts.
There are alarming reports in the media of an Italian woman (unnamed for legal reasons) who came to Stansted Airport in summer of 2012 for a training course, who was then sectioned under the mental health act, held in a hospital for five weeks, and forcibly sedated, before finally having her baby removed from her in a C-section, all in the guise of keeping it safe.
It's difficult to know where to start with the bizarreness and sheer unacceptability of the conduct of Essex County Council in this case, but here are seven of the most central reasons why:
1. Who gave a county council this kind of power?
County councils are the primary providers of social care because they are supposed to know the community they're dealing with the best. It should have been palpably obvious that local knowledge wasn't sufficient qualification to make this kind of decision.
If you want to know if a woman is dangerous enough to not only be locked in a hospital, but also to have her child taken from her womb, you need a higher authority than local councils or experts. Of the one million voters in the county, there was a 26.7% turnout in the May 2013 elections. At the very least, the local MP should have been brought into the loop, for some genuine accountability. We are after all talking about the removal of someone's basic human rights.
2. Did no one notice her passport?
Although a general principle of the rule of law is that it applies within a country's borders, even to non-citizens, there are special procedures to go through when you arrest someone who doesn't call your country home. Consulates have to be contacted. Families have to be notified. Government representatives have to be informed. That all of this apparently happened without the involvement of anyone else from Italy, never mind anyone who was related to this woman, is a shocking example of extreme procedural failings.
It is a great strength of the NHS that anyone can get help from any hospital, free at the point of demand. There are no forms to fill in or other bureaucratic processes that stop you from making an appointment with a doctor and getting the treatment you need. But if such processes may potentially make it so that this kind of ignorance of proper international protocol may be avoided, it might be worth looking into them again.
While it's obvious that the tragedy is that this woman's baby was taken, not that someone defied a quantum of international law, any single step that could have stopped this outrage may well have been a step worth taking.
3. Did anyone involved actually know what bipolar disorder is?
Based on the massive over-reaction to her breakdown by the Essex authorities, you would have thought that this poor woman was some kind of violent psychopath who had been given superhuman strength through strategic application of gamma radiation. Contrary to what everyone involved seemed to think, bipolar disorder (BD) did not turn this woman into the She-Hulk. The mental health charity Mind has the following to say about the condition on its website:
"[those with BD] will experience extreme swings in mood – from periods of overactive, excited behaviour – known as 'mania' or 'manic episodes' – to deep depression. Between these severe highs and lows, you may have stable times."
The authorities were first involved when the woman at the centre of this case had a panic attack because she could not find the passports of her two other children. This was because they were in fact back home with their grandmother in Italy, and while the woman's forgetfulness about this fact is concerning, it's hardly something to take a baby out of her body over.
People with BD are often able to function perfectly well with perfectly ordinary and stable lives. The doctors and social workers in this case based their decisions upon a single panic attack. Since they didn't contact anyone in Italy, they couldn't have possibly understood the severity of her case. Certainly not enough to know whether locking her up and removing her unborn child was warranted. What kind of understanding of BD did anyone involved in the judgement process in this case actually have?
4. Does no one understand what 'blood relative' means?
During the fractious legal battles between Italy and the UK, a third party stepped in. The woman's American ex-husband (not the father of this baby but father to her elder sisters), whom she was separated from quite amicably, stepped in and requested that the baby be sent to stay with his sister in Los Angeles. She was described as a "rock" of a capable mother by her US lawyer, and more than able to properly provide for another child.
British law prefers to, wherever possible, have babies in the kind of circumstances of this one adopted by members of the wider family. However in this case, Essex County Council have refused on the ground that because this woman is the aunt of the baby's step sister, she is not a blood relative and therefore does not fall within the parameters deemed acceptable for using the expedient adoption clauses.
When they were making this decision, was no one in the room remotely aware of the extreme irony of denying custody to this slightly distant relative on the grounds of insufficient connection, when all the while they were fighting to keep the baby in the custody of people who may never have met the mother?
5. Did no one consider the possibility of forgiveness?
Although the mother came back to Chelmsford in February of 2013 a very different woman, having returned to her regular course of medication and therefore stabilised quite substantially, the judge still refused to grant her request to have custody of her child again. Even though the judge admitted that it was plain to see that the woman the system was dealing with now was far more articulate and clear thinking than the one from the previous year, they couldn't countenance sending this woman back with her daughter for fear that she could relapse and go back into a more unstable state.
Surely at some stage, individuals recovering from a problem have to be trusted again, or else they will never be able to rebuild their lives. How long must this woman remain 'stable' before a court grants her the access to her child once more? What does it base that judgement upon? Surely forgiveness should be possible? At the very least, trust where trust is due, and with proper supports and checks in place.
6. How did we not hear about this until now?
This incident was uncovered by the Daily Telegraph, after gaining access to documents relating to the legal case. But it happened initially in summer 2012. Why has it been kept secret for so long? How was it kept secret so long? Surely at the latest we should have heard something of the goings on here back in February 2013, when the woman returned to the UK to fight for her child? The fact that there has been no press access for a case so serious suggests that some less than acceptable attempts have been made to conceal not only the specific details of the incident, but also the fact that local councils have these kinds of powers.
7. What happened to consent?
In 2000 conjoined twins known as Mary and Jodie were born in the UK, and forcibly separated as a result of a legal injunction. The problem was that Jodie, the stronger of the two twins, basically pumped blood for Mary. It was medically agreed that both would die if nothing was done, but if separation was attempted Mary would die immediately. Although their parents didn't want the procedure to happen, a court ordered that it went ahead, and Jodie is still alive today as a result.
This is perhaps one of the most significant cases of forced medical practice, but in that case the danger was real, and understanding of the danger was deep and well rounded. The idea that an operation can be forcibly deployed without any consultation with previous doctors or any notification of family members, or any kind of recognisable democratic legal oversight is terrifying in the extreme.