Sarah Catt, dreadful mothers and Victorian morals

Sarah Louise Catt pleaded guilty to – and was found guilty of – a hideous thing. At 38 weeks pregnant, and fearing that she had conceived as the result of an affair, the married mother of two ordered medication from India to induce her own abortion. She delivered the (by her own account, stillborn) baby and disposed of the remains alone. There are those on the anti-abortion side who have suggested that this is a “tricky case” from a pro-choice view.

Christina Odone is one: “They have to admit that her action is illegal, but they are terrified that someone being sent to prison because of an abortion will re-open the debate over the right to terminate a life,” she writes – even though the sentencing remarks [PDF] by Mr Justice Cooke case explicitly state that “there is no mitigation available by reference to the Abortion Act”. However, the fact that the Abortion Act is irrelevant to Catt’s offence hasn’t stopped some from attempting to make her into a wedge case, using her to force their own viewpoint on the legal provision of abortion.

One such attempt, strangely, comes in those same sentencing remarks. Cooke doesn’t just strike the Abortion Act out of consideration: the judge takes the opportunity to give his own opinion on the Act, commenting that the Abortion Act is “(wrongly) liberally construed”. It’s a curious slip, that one parenthetical word casting doubt on the impartiality of the entire judgement.

Had he left it out, I doubt that anyone would have looked very closely at this verdict. Catt’s actions raise some questions about the advice available to women who approach abortion providers at an advanced state of pregnancy – but then again, her personal history of late-term abortion, concealed pregnancy and giving up children for adoption suggests that an individual whose experience can’t be seen as representative.

The eight-year sentence certainly seems lengthy – but the crime is so rare, there’s little precedent to compare. And the fact that Cooke didn’t request a report from a psychologist, despite Catt’s troubling record with pregnancy – again, that might have raised some concern, but on the other hand, Catt’s crime is so unsympathetic, perhaps no one would have pursued it.

But “wrongly” was there, and that led to scrutiny of the judge’s own views, and that led to the revelation (via Amanda Bancroft in the Guardian) that Cooke is vice-president of the Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship – an organisation that has campaigned for restrictive legislation on abortion. As a member of a lobby group, Cooke arguably should have recused himself from this case in order to avoid the appearance of bias; instead, he presided over the case, and produced a judgement that has the appearance of bias.

I think the problem with the Catt case isn’t that pro-choice activists find it difficult; the problem is that anti-abortion campaigners find it easy. Go back to Odone, and see her assumption that Catt unquestionably deserved a prison sentence. Remember that the position of anti-abortion campaigners is that withdrawing access to abortion will lead to safe, live births and happy maternal relationships. Catt shows that this is not true: however difficult it is to obtain an abortion, there will be women who circumvent the law to do so.

And there are women for whom motherhood is a dire condition, to be avoided at any cost. To my mind, Catt shows how important it is to allow those women to access abortion as early as possible: Catt’s apparent denial and self-deception about her pregnancy is extraordinarily rare, but her condition of being pregnant without feeling any desire to care for or raise a child is not. And the harder it is to access safe, legal, early abortion, the more women find themselves forced into the same desperate circumstances as Catt.

Catt shows that simply bringing a child to term can’t transform a woman into a nurturing, self-sacrificing mother. Anti-abortion campaigners are happy to see her punished severely, rather than treated with the consideration and sympathy perhaps due to someone with severe issues around pregnancy and childbirth. Here, it’s tempting to describe the Odone view as Victorian – but that would be unfair on Victorians.

Hetty Sorrel in George Eliot’s Adam Bede  (pictured above) buries her illegitimate newborn under a wood pile and leaves it to die. She’s found guilty and sentenced to hang, but it’s a point of moral relief in the novel when that punishment is commuted to transportation. Hetty is based on a contemporary case of infanticide, and she’s a hard case: selfish, vain and openly dismissive of children even before she deserts her own.

But Eliot still looks for a way to make her readers feel sympathy with this hard case, to treat Hetty humanely without negating the wrong she does. Mr Justice Cooke condemns Catt for a “cold calculated decision that you took for your own convenience and your own self interest alone”, but if we treat Catt as simply evil because she fails to be maternal, then we’ve failed to be just.

Perhaps Cooke’s character assessment is accurate, though without a psychologist’s report it’s hard to interpret Catt’s actions with full confidence. What’s certainly true, however, is that there’s a social self-interest in treating Catt as abnormal and abhorrent – and it’s convenient to see her as so thoroughly other, she’s beyond the reach of justice. Her case says almost nothing about the UK’s law on abortion as it stands, but it does ask us how far we’ll compromise our own principles of justice for the comforts of moral security.