Sterilization of mentally disabled man approved in U.K.

A London court has approved the sterilization of a 36-year-old man with a mental disability after his parents made a plea that his quality of life would drastically improve after the procedure.

London court deems vasectomy to be in the 36-year-old's 'best interest'

A London court has approved the sterilization of a 36-year-old man with a mental disability after his parents made a plea that his quality of life would drastically improve after the procedure.

In a landmark ruling, a London court has approved the sterilization of a man with a mental disability. (Ben Edwards/Reuters)

This marks the first time a sterilization process has been approved for a mentally disabled man in England and Wales, though London barrister John McKendrick, who represented social workers in the case, told CBC News that similar procedures for women are more common but still rare.

Justice Eleanor King announced her decision today after hearing from parents, doctors, and social workers that a man identified in the ruling as "DE" has a lifelong disability that renders him capable of sexual consent, but prevents him from making informed decisions regarding contraception.

A doctor has deemed DE's IQ to be in the vicinity of 40, equivalent to the mental age of a six- to nine-year-old boy. According to the justice’s statement, a "best interest" ruling is made on behalf of a person such as DE, who has neither the mental capacity to choose or refuse a vasectomy, nor the capacity to litigate.

DE already has a three-year-old child with his longtime girlfriend, PQ. The judge heard that the birth of this child had adversely affected his "loving relationship" with PQ, who is also learning disabled.

McKendrick was present during the court proceedings. He said it was his duty to safeguard the interests of the vulnerable man involved, and to ensure the court considered the wider social implications of her ruling, rather than just the medical issues.

With the discomfiting history of the eugenics movement, which reached its peak in Britain in the 1930s when proponents advocated curbing reproduction among disabled people to strengthen the human race, "people are wary" said McKendrick, of considering sterilization for the learning disabled.

But McKendrick also said that Justice King made the decision with great compassion for the family and keeping in mind the facts of the case, namely, DE's "consistent and clearly articulated wish not to have any further children."

The judge heard that DE and PQ's meetings had to be closely supervised after their baby was born, since their parents feared they might conceive another child, adding further stress to an already strained relationship. DE's confidence had dropped, and PQ became reluctant to meet DE since their supervision began.

"There was clear evidence that the quality of his [DE's] life could be improved, said McKendrick, adding that DE would have greater independence after the procedure.

McKendrick told CBC News that the case plays an important role in raising awareness that the mentally disabled population should not be denied some medical procedures that are available for the convenience of non-disabled populations.

It is not, however, "a green light for other applicants," said McKendrick, dismissing speculation that other learning disabled people might be adversely affected by the ruling. The decision was based on the specific relationship between DE and his parents, and his long-term relationship with his girlfriend, he said.

In determining what is objectively in the "best interest" of a person, U.K. law calls upon the justice to look past any unjustified assumptions based on DE’s behaviour, to consider his wishes, and the factors DE would likely consider if he was independently able to do so.

The law also calls upon her to consult with people who care for DE’s welfare before making a decision. The "best interest" test is designed to prevent contradictions with DE's basic human rights, enshrined in the U.K.’s Human Rights Act. The act outlines DE’s right to a private life, including respect for his choices relating to control over his own physical and psychological integrity. This includes his right to choose whether or not to become a parent.