Sarah Louise Catt and the “failure to know”

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.


7 thoughts on “Sarah Louise Catt and the “failure to know”

  1. I totally agree. The judge’s statements here gives no credence to the fact that this is an individual, whose body *and mind* are doing strange things due to all the hormones coursing through her, putting her under sever strain. I suffered PND, so know how damaging some of the effects can be for a normal, healthy, very well educated woman. I have come into contact with women who suffered post natal psychosis – which made them want to kill their children. A medically recognised condition. The judges comments here look ignorant and foolish. If I was her lawyer I would be appealing. But beyond that it also opens up the questions about abortion doesn’t it. We have a law which puts a date on it based on protecting the foetus. I’m not pro-abortion, but it does strikes me that there is nothing offered to support, care-for and protect the mother who is forced to go through with a pregnancy she does not want because of this law.

  2. I agree. Although my stomach turned when I read about this case, I was also very uneasy at the heavy sentence given – heavier than the average sentences for rape and child abuse and much heavier than the sentences given for domestic violence.
    I also think this is something of a slippery slope. If, by taken a drug she knew would cause abortion, she was guilty of murder/manslaughter (which was the judge’s reasoning) then what about women who drink, or take drugs during pregnancy? Are they also guilty of murder?
    I also dislike very much the features he classed as ‘aggravating’ – her level of education, her experience of childbirth. As her lawyer stated, she has a very complicated emotional and obstretic history. I am not sure how having a history of unwanted pregnancy makes her more culpable? And there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason for declining to conduct psychiatric assessments. How can he make such a devastating assessment of her motivations and character without an understanding of any underlying psychiatric and emotional problems?
    The judge reaction seems hysterical, based on moral judgement rather than the objective facts of the case.
    Like you, I struggle very much to understand how anyone could abort a 39 week pregnancy. All of my pregnancies were very much wanted. But so much about this case makes me deeply uncomfortable.

    1. It is really hard to say “this doesn’t seem quite right”, given what happened, but yes, I find it so difficult to see why her past experiences should somehow have made her more responsible. I expected the kind of language the judge used to be more common in certain US states – it is naive but I thought we were a bit further away from it here.

      1. I think part of the reason the judge made reference to Ms Catt’s previous history with pregnancies was to perhaps differentiate this case from that of say a 15 year old girl who’s pregnant, alone and terrified and doesn’t know what to do or who to approach for help. This lady has had three or four pregnancies, prior to the one this case revolves around, one of which was terminated within the limit, one which resulted in an adoption and of course two where she’s gone on to give birth.
        It can’t be said that she was entirely unaware of what happens when you get pregnant.
        I’m unashamedly pro-choice, but I have to say I’m really uncomfortable with the way this is being presented on some media outlets as some kind of late term abortion. At 39 weeks, we’re talking about an induced birth. By this lady’s own account she gave birth. I don’t think it helps the pro-choice argument one bit to pretend that a 39 week old unborn child isn’t full term.

        As for the sentence being too harsh aspect of this, an ex police officer was sentenced a couple of weeks ago to 10 years for attacking his pregnant partner and trying to cause her to miscarry at 6 months. She and her child survived the attack. It may well be that psychiatric treatment may have been the better course of action, but this isn’t the best example of an unfair attack on women’s reproductive rights.

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