Can a court order an abortion?

A judge and the parents of a pregnant mentally disabled woman battle over their daughter's womb

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published November 6, 2012 7:18PM (EST)
                           (<a href=''>Andrey Burmakin</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Andrey Burmakin via Shutterstock)

The idea of a judge making the decision of whether a woman can have abortion is utterly chilling to many of us. But in the fight for reproductive choice, what happens when a pregnant woman can't choose for herself?

That's the wrenching battle playing out right now in Nevada, where Washoe County District Court Judge Egan Walker has asked the state's Supreme Court to proceed with hearings on whether he has the authority to order an abortion for a mentally disabled 32-year-old woman.

Elizabeth E. Bauer's adoptive parents, William and Amy Bauer, became her legal guardians in 1998, when it was determined she couldn't care for herself. Bauer was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and has a variety of other physical maladies. With a reported IQ of 42, she has the mental age of an average 6-year-old child. Bauer was living in a group home when she became pregnant after wandering away from the facility 13 weeks ago. The circumstances of her pregnancy are still unknown, which raises a host of unsettling questions about the state of her prior care.

But now that she's pregnant, her parents, an Anglican priest and his Catholic wife, are claiming "exclusive authority over her health-care decisions." The LA Times reports that "at a court hearing last Thursday, two medical experts testified that the pregnancy carries risks because the woman has epilepsy and is on medication." Kim Guinasso, a lawyer for the couple, told reporters earlier this week, "They know the pregnancy and birth come with risks, but they are aware of the risks of terminating the baby as well." The family says it has six potential couples lined up who are eager to adopt the baby.

However it goes, the case will be a litmus test for abortion and anti-choice advocates, one that may wind up bringing a judge and a pair of legal guardians all the way to the Supreme Court. But whether she will be ordered by a court  to have an abortion or bear a child, either way, the one person who clearly will have no say in what happens next inside Elizabeth E. Bauer's womb is Elizabeth E. Bauer herself.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortion Mental Disability Reproductive Choice Reproductive Freedom