AP Legal Affairs Writer
BOSTON (AP) – A retired Massachusetts judge on Tuesday defended her decision to order a mentally ill woman to have an abortion and be sterilized against her wishes, and she blasted Boston University for rescinding a job offer after her ruling sparked controversy.
Christina Harms said she believes the schizophrenic woman would have chosen to have an abortion if she had been mentally competent. In her ruling, she granted a petition from the woman’s parents to have their daughter declared incompetent and awarded guardianship to them for the purpose of consenting to the abortion.
Harms’ ruling drew spirited debate among bloggers on both sides of the abortion issue. Her written ruling remains sealed under family court rules, but the gist of it became public after the state Appeals Court overturned the decision on Jan. 17.
Now Harms has taken the unusual step of defending her decision publicly, both in media interviews and in a letter she sent Monday to other family court judges in Massachusetts. The Boston Globe first reported on the judge’s letter.
Harms, who retired six days before the Appeals Court ruling, said a decision by Boston University’s School of Law to back out of a job offer shortly after the Appeals Court overturned her ruling sends the wrong message about judicial independence.
“Being a judge is not like being a contestant on `American Idol,’ ” Harms told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “You are not looking for votes.”
The 31-year-old woman has not been named; she was identified in court papers only as “Mary Moe.” She had characterized herself as “very Catholic” and said she was opposed to having an abortion. Her parents had said their daughter was not a devout Catholic; they sought consent from the court for an abortion.
Harms said the woman had been taken off some of her anti-psychotic drugs because the medications could have harmed the fetus. After hearing from the woman herself and from her parents, Harms said she found that the woman had severe delusions _ including her belief that she was not pregnant _ and was not competent to decide whether to have an abortion. Harms said she also found that the woman, if she had been mentally competent, would have chosen an abortion to protect her own well-being.
“I viewed the interruption of Mary’s full medical regimen as potentially life-threatening. If Mary understood this, which my observation of her behavior, demeanor, and responses indicated that she did not, I believed then, as I do now, that she would elect to abort the pregnancy in order to protect her own well-being,” Harms wrote in her letter to her former colleagues on the bench.
Harms said she had been negotiating with BU’s law school since August about a newly created position where she would help the school in its efforts to increase the number of judicial clerkships and internships offered to its law students. On Jan. 17 _ the day the Appeals Court ruled _ she said she received an email from a BU official asking her to send a short biography and photo to introduce her to the law school community. Three days later, after a media flurry about her ruling, she said she got an email from the school canceling an appointment she had to fill out paperwork related to the job.
BU says it never made a formal job offer to Harms, but it acknowledges that the controversy created by her ruling contributed to the decision to take her out of the running for the job.
In a letter to Harms’ lawyer, BU `s deputy general counsel, Erika Geetter, said that it was not disagreement with the content of the judge’s ruling that caused the school not to move forward on the job.
“This matter therefore has nothing to do with academic freedom, judicial independence, `blacklisting,’ or `threats to a cornerstone of our constitutional system.’ Instead, it has everything to do with the School’s legitimate conclusion that it did not want to worry about whether an individual who was at the center of a controversy would need to overcome that obstacle when serving as the public face of the School,” Geetter wrote.
Harms said she believes the school would not have made the decision if her ruling had involved an issue other than abortion.
“I think that abortion is such a third-rail issue that it creates strong opinions, public debate, controversy. People feel very strongly about it _ pro and con _ and I became therefore controversial,” she said.
In overturning Harms’ decision, the Appeals Court used unusually strong language.
The court said no one had requested sterilization and said Harms “appears to have simply produced the requirement out of thin air.”
Harms said she based her sterilization order on concerns that the woman had had two previous pregnancies and would continue to have unprotected sex, unplanned pregnancies and therefore “serial abortions.” The woman had aborted one of her earlier pregnancies. Her parents are raising a child she gave birth to from the other pregnancy.
“I frankly felt it would be cowardly for me not to address it,” Harms said Tuesday.
Retired Appeals Court Judge Rudolph Kass called the decision by BU “unfortunate.”
“You don’t want judges sniffing at the winds to see what’s popular,” Kass said. “They should be trying to do what’s right in the circumstances.”
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