A British court ruled for the first time in its history that a man who lacks capacity to consent to sterilization should be given a vasectomy because the 36-year-old, who has already fathered a son, could suffer “psychological harm” if he has another child.
"This is not a decision the court made lightly," said Penney Lewis, a legal ethics expert at King's College London. "This is a man who already has a child and has repeatedly expressed his opinion he does not want any more."
The man, only referred to as “DE” by the court, has an IQ of 40. Most people who have an IQ score between 85 and 115 are considered people of average intelligence. People with scores between 40 and 54 are considered to have a “moderate mental disability” and anyone below that falls into a more severe category. DE falls right on the border of moderate and severe.
DE’s son was born in 2010. While DE has expressed the desire to no longer have children, his disability has made it difficult to follow through on the decision. According to the Associated Press, attempts to teach DE how to use a condom since the birth of his son have failed. His family has kept a close eye on him, making sure that he and his longtime girlfriend do not conceive another child before turning to the court for help. And, because of his disability, DE would need family or guardian consent in order to obtain an operation like a vasectomy that would permanently prevent any future pregnancies. Since DE is 36, the issue of guardian consent is a little murky, but the courts have decided that in this case, they will allow it.
"There were extensive efforts made by everybody involved to improve his quality of life by other means," said Lewis. "It would be hard to imagine a (similar) case where the benefits would be more obvious than this one."
This isn’t the first time that a British court intervened in the sex life of a disabled person. In 2011, a court ruled that a 41-year-old man would not be permitted to engage in sexual activity, other than private masturbation, which would only be permitted in his bedroom and bathroom. The England and Wales Court of Protection ruled that a man named “Alan” lacked the requisite mental capacity to consent to sexual intercourse with another person. He had an IQ of 48.
As for DE, experts assessing his mental capacity found that he is capable of consenting to sexual relationships with others. And, continuing to do so is actually in his best interests.
"Allowing DE to resume his long-term relationship with [his girlfriend] and restoring to him his lost skills and independence are as important, if not more so, when determining his best interests,” said Justice Eleanor King.
The judge ruled that sterilizing DE would give him back the independence that he lost as his family watched his every move to ensure that he was not engaging in sexual activity. Other British officials made sure to emphasize the unique nature of DE’s case, saying that this ruling will not be the start of a trend in families with mentally disabled relatives.
“This is an exceptional case and should not be seen as a green light for other applications for vasectomies in respect of other people with learning difficulties,” said Angus Moon, who was in court to protect DE’s interests.