Sarah Catt needs psychiatric help more than punishment

There are two disturbing aspects of the story earlier this week of Sarah Catt, aged 35, sentenced by Leeds Crown Court to eight years in prison for aborting her baby just two days before her due date to give birth. She has refused to say where she has buried the body.

The first concerns her mental health. It seems, according to newspaper reports, that she has had a long history of emotional problems: in 1999, while at university, she hid her first pregnancy from her family then gave the baby up for adoption immediately after the birth. Later, in a relationship with Stephen Catt whom she went on to marry, she had an abortion at the legal limit of 24 weeks with his agreement. She then tried to abort her next baby, a girl, but was beyond the legal limit to do so. Pregnant yet again, she kept this a secret from Catt until the birth.

In this latest tragic twist to her troubled life and gynaecological history, Mrs Catt became pregnant in 2009 as the result of an extra-marital affair. She booked an appointment at a local branch of a Marie Stopes abortion clinic but discovered during a scan a day earlier at St James Hospital in Leeds that the baby was already 29 weeks old – too advanced for a legal abortion. After internet searches, she ordered an abortifacient drug from India and is thought to have taken it on 25 May 2010 at home, when her husband was away. She told a psychiatrist that the baby, a boy, had been stillborn and that she had buried it. The following day she went on a family holiday to France.

The court took the view that she wasn’t suffering from a psychiatric disorder but was an intelligent woman with knowledge of abortion law who had shown no remorse. The judge, Mr Justice Cooke, rightly took her action as a grave offence – but will she be helped by an eight-year prison sentence, leaving her husband to cope with two young children to whom, according to her barrister she was “a supportive and loving mother”? I know it is often hard to distinguish the degree of personal responsibility in seemingly calculated acts (this was what was at issue in the case of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian gunman) but I honestly think that any woman with this long, unhappy and bizarre history of secretive pregnancies and abortions is in need of psychiatric help more than punishment.

The second disturbing feature will have occurred to all pro-life advocates: disabled babies can be legally aborted up to birth without any condemnation – yet in the case of a healthy baby aborted well after the legal limit the court judgement reflects the very natural public sense of horror. Passing sentence, Mr Justice Cooke said, “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 unintentional manslaughter or any offence on the calendar other than murder.”

He told Catt that she had robbed an apparently healthy child “vulnerable and defenceless, of the life which he was about to commence”. She had ended “the life of a child that was capable of being born alive, by inducing birth or miscarriage.” Chief Inspector Kerrin Smith who led the investigation commented, “I only hope now that Catt has been sentenced and has had time to reflect on her actions, that she will reveal where the body of her baby is, so that we can ensure a compassionate conclusion to this very sad investigation.”

All these are laudable and humane sentiments: would that this “right-thinking” were extended to all “vulnerable and defenceless” babies in the womb whose lives are “about to commence”.