Leading article: Judges strike a blow for freedom

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The Independent Online
HOW SWEET the sound! A loud clear blast on the trumpet of liberty from the Court of Appeal. Yesterday's ruling in the case of M S, the woman who was cut open against her will in order to deliver her baby, is a definitive statement of the rights of the individual against authority. "Even when his or her own life depends on receiving medical treatment, an adult of sound mind is entitled to refuse it," said Lord Justice Judge. The fact that M S was eight months pregnant when she was detained in hospital meant that the interests of the unborn baby had to be considered, but they did not justify her detention under a Mental Health Act order simply because she objected to any form of medical intervention. Her right to decide whether or not to undergo medical treatment is not diminished "merely because her decision to exercise it may appear morally repugnant," the appeal judges ruled.

Even more disgraceful - the Appeal Court says it was "most unfortunate" - was the way doctors obtained an order to deliver the baby by Caesarean section. The judge who made the order was told that M S was in labour, which was not true, and was not told that M S had not been assessed as mentally incompetent.

For some reason, attention in this case has focused on the actions of a social worker, who was - rightly - praised by the judges for her intervention in the case. No one with any knowledge of the case would argue that M S should have been left to her own devices: clearly she needed help. What she got, though, was Catch-22: her refusal to accept medical advice automatically defined her as mad. The real focus of attention should be the medical profession, the arrogance of some of whose members has been illustrated by a series of recent court cases. Women have been bullied and coerced into Caesareans and hysterectomies to an extent which is an affront to the liberal values of a civilised society. When The Independent reported the start of this case a year ago, we received a letter from a woman who had fled the country in order to be sure that she would be allowed to give birth naturally. Yesterday's judgment is a big step towards making this a country where women need not be afraid to assert their rights over their own bodies.

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