Sterilization Decision Illustrates the Importance of Intent

In a recent British court case the mother of a 21-year-old woman who was pregnant with her second child asked that doctors perform a sterilization procedure at the time of her planned C-section.  The woman has a mental disability and the court is being asked to determine if she is capable of making her own decision regarding sterilization. If it is determined that she is not, her mother is asking for permission for her doctors to sterilize her.  The mother says that this would be in her daughter’s best interest due to her inability to care for further children and the likelihood that she would be separated from those children.

This request raises the concern that sterilization of those who had a mental disability was what the eugenics movement of the early 20th century proposed.  That attempt to rid society of those who were not desired by preventing their birth showed disrespect for the intrinsic human worth of those with a disability.  However, there is a big difference between sterilizing someone in order to decrease the burden on society and doing so because it is in the best interest of the person with the disability.  The mother says she  desires her daughter to be sterilized for the daughter’s benefit.

The moral difference between the eugenics movement and this mother’s request is one of intent.  To sterilize a person who lacks capability to make her own decisions with the sole intent of limiting the number of potentially mentally disabled offspring in society is wrong.  To sterilize a person who lacks capability to make her own decisions with the intent of doing what is in her best interest may be right thing to do.  If the mother’s intent is not actually her daughter’s best interest, but her own, then it may not be right.

Even though the acts may be the same and the consequences may be the same, intent is the deciding factor in this moral decision.