For all I know, Sarah Louise Catt is a heartless human being who felt no shame in breaking the law and ending a pregnancy one week before the due date. I didn’t attend her trial, don’t live in her head and have no idea, in the grand scheme of things, how harshly she deserves to be judged. Why, then, does her eight-year sentence for administering a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage disturb me so much?
I have been pregnant three times. I have two children. I have never had a pregnancy that wasn’t wanted – I have no idea what that feels like. I know what it feels like to be pregnant, and to lose a pregnancy, and to carry two pregnancies to term. I can’t understand why Catt acted as she did. I can’t imagine ever being in such a place, nor how I’d justify making the choices she made. But these are all idle thoughts – I’ve never been her.
I don’t in any way doubt that Catt’s actions were against the law. Nevertheless, reading through the Hon. Mr Justice Cooke’s sentencing remarks, there are many things which truly concern me about the assumptions being made about women, their experience of pregnancy and what this experience should teach them.
Catt sought an abortion but had left it too late into her pregnancy to obtain one legally; that much is clear. The rest, however, is far more confusing, yet apparently it shouldn’t be, at least not in Cooke’s summation:
You are a woman who obtained sufficient A Levels to attend Newcastle University although you gave up your course in Mathematics there in your second year. You have experience of childbirth and of abortion and must have full knowledge of the developmental stages of the child in the womb as well as the lawful limits on abortion of which you were expressly told.
I have A Levels and degrees as well as pregnancies under my belt. I still don’t have “full knowledge of the developmental stages of the child in the womb” – whatever “full” might mean. To be honest, I didn’t even call the fetuses inside me “children” – that was my choice. I am unsure what my reproductive experiences are meant to have taught me, but I get the impression that a certain type of moral repositioning is assumed. For me this never happened. Furthermore, I do not understand how “experience of childbirth” can be listed alongside “full knowledge of […] the lawful limits on abortion” as proof of the calculated nature of Catt’s actions. I have been through childbirth – I know what happens, but then I knew this before – what difference should it make?
Cooke tells Catt “I see no need for a report from a psychologist”:
This was a cold calculated decision that you took for your own convenience and in your own self interest alone.
To describe what Catt did as for her own “convenience” strikes me as odd. It’s a word which often crops up in relation to unwanted pregnancies, as though the alternative to abortion is not so serious after all. Of course Catt is at the furthest end – but the thing that I, and I imagine others, find bewildering is why she did something so extreme at so late a stage, when so much “inconvenience” was unavoidable. Is giving birth to a baby that you bury alone really easier than giving up a live baby for adoption? I have no idea, none at all. But I find the conviction that it is unsettling.
Reviewing Catt’s pregnancy history, Mr Justice Cooke tells the defendant that she is “no stranger to the issues which surround childbirth, abortion and adoption”. What does this even mean? What are “the issues”? Can they be summed up? Is it possible to think them through at all when you’re right there in the middle, with this extra heartbeat and this terrifying power /loss of power inside you? I don’t presume to know how Catt felt. I suspect she must have known that what she was doing was illegal. But as for her position on “the issues”? What should it be? How are her experiences meant to have changed her – and how much of her crime is linked to the fact that they didn’t?
Cooke takes a very clear line on what Catt must have known about the fetus – or “child” – that she was carrying:
A person of your intelligence, education and experience would know just how early on a child’s characteristics and features are seen in the womb and the extent of a child’s development at 38-40 weeks, however inexact the calculation of the due date.
Although “a child’s development at 38-40 weeks” is a phrase which might make me picture a baby who’s just started to crawl, I can understand what Cooke means here. But “just how early on a child’s characteristics and features are seen in the womb” seems frighteningly vague to me – and desperately subjective. By “characteristics”, what is really meant? Unique features and actions? A baby “walking” in the womb? What is it that Catt was meant to be seeing and knowing? How many other women are “failing to know” in such a way – and how are we to judge them?
Cooke’s own position on abortion law and practice is made clear here:
There is no mitigation available by reference to the Abortion Act, whatever view one takes of its provisions which are, wrongly, liberally construed in practice so as to make abortion available essentially on demand prior to 24 weeks with the approval of registered medical practitioners.
The generosity with which the current law is applied is, I would argue, in the eye of the beholder. I would not be surprised it if were to appear more generous to a male judge than to an unhappily pregnant woman. Cooke goes on to state that “the child in the womb here was so near to birth that in my judgement all right thinking people would consider this offence more serious than manslaughter or any offence on the calendar other than murder”. I don’t know whether I am a “right thinking” person. I don’t like the persistent abstraction of “the womb”; we’re not dealing with a place but a person. It can be a horrible, cold, calculating, hateful person, or a confused, desperate person – or even mixture of the two – but a person nonetheless. And making decisions about what’s beneath that person’s own skin is hard. It is easier, but dishonest, to bypass that person entirely, instead pitching “the child” against “the womb”.
Pregnancy was, to me, a tremendous blessing and I feel incredibly lucky to have my children. It was also an incredibly bizarre experience – being at once so powerful and so controlled. The constant question – if I do this, do I do it to myself alone? – is never easy to answer. There is never a point at which, universally, all pregnant woman “know” what each stage ought to mean. I don’t wish to minimise what Catt did – to me it seems a tremendous waste of a life almost there. But in this case, it strikes me that the problem lies with things we still don’t know about how people feel and act – and not with essential “women’s knowledge” that one heartless individual sought to disregard.