Making Medical Decisions For Mentally Incompetent A Difficult Task23:59

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(Flickr/Noukka Signe)
(Flickr/Noukka Signe)

It sounds like something out of a George Orwell novel: a woman who suffers from schizophrenia becomes pregnant. She stops taking her medication so as not to harm her unborn baby. But without her medication, she can't function, and a judge declares her mentally incompetent and orders her to undergo an abortion and to be sterilized.

The judge's order comes even though the woman describes herself as "very Catholic" and opposed to abortion. Shocking as it was, that ruling happened just this month right here in Massachusetts. And even though it was quickly overturned on appeal, it raises troubling questions about how to protect the rights of those declared mentally incompetent.

It also shines a spotlight on the difficult and painful decisions families and courts must make on behalf of the mentally ill when they're unable to function in their best interests.

In such cases, who is best suited to make life and death decisions for them: Family members? The courts? And what standard should guide their decisions? Is it what's best for a particular person, or what that person would want if he or she were mentally competent?

Former Massachusetts Commissioner of Mental Health Marylou Sudders joined Radio Boston to explore these questions from this very troubling story. She's now the executive director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Robert Fleischner, at attorney as the Center for Public Representation in Northampton who specializes in mental health and disability law, also joins in on the discussion.


  • Robert Fleischner, attorney, Center for Public Representation
  • Marylou Sudders, executive director, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; former state Mental Health Commissioner

This program aired on January 24, 2012.