By Peter Schworm
| BOSTON GLOBE
FEBRUARY 21, 2012
A family court judge who ruled that a pregnant woman with schizophrenia should undergo an abortion and be sterilized sharply defended her decision yesterday, while denouncing Boston University for withdrawing what she said was a job offer amid the controversy.
In a rare personal defense of the reasoning behind a court ruling, Christina Harms, who retired from the bench last month after 23 years, said she concluded that the woman, a 31-year-old who suffered from delusions, would choose to terminate her pregnancy if she were mentally competent, chiefly so that she could resume antipsychotic medication that would have harmed the fetus.
“I believed then, as I do now, that she would elect to abort the pregnancy to protect her own well-being,’’ she said. “She would want to be healthy.’’
Speaking in detail for the first time about the decision, which an appeals court reversed last month in unsparing terms, Harms described the case as “a tragic set of circumstances for which no outcome would have been easy or obviously correct.’’ The woman had described herself as “very Catholic’’ and expressed opposition to an abortion, while her parents were seeking consent for the procedure.
In a letter that she sent yesterday to other family court judges in Massachusetts, Harms outlined the reasons for her determination and criticized the appeals court ruling, which she called simplistic and unfair.
The appeals court ruled that the woman had clearly expressed her opposition to abortion as a Catholic, but Harms wrote that “the statements of a person suffering from schizophrenia surely cannot simply be taken at face value.’’
Harms said she has requested a meeting with the chief judge of the appeals court to register her objection to the “insulting tone’’ of the decision.
She also stated that Boston University’s law school rescinded a job offer shortly after her decision came to light, an abrupt move she said could discourage judges from making unpopular decisions.
“It strikes at the heart of what judicial independence is about,’’ she said. “We need to protect judges from the popularity of the moment.’’
A BU spokesman said yesterday that the university never officially offered the job but acknowledged that it eliminated her from consideration for the job – a new position that would guide students toward judicial clerkships – after her ruling came to light and stirred public outcry.
“It was the reaction to the decision that gave us pause,’’ said the spokesman, Stephen Burgay. “The more we learned about Judge Harms, the clearer it became that it was the wrong job fit,’’ he added.
“As time and negotiations continued, it was clear that there were many factors that led us to conclude that it was not a good fit,’’ he said.
Donald K. Stern, former US attorney now at Cooley LLP, said BU’s decision was worrisome in its focus on a single case and the public reaction.
“It strikes me as a gross overreaction, and from a surprising source,’’ he said. “It’s troubling in the sense that you do want judges to make decisions free of influence.’’
According to Harms, BU law school officials canceled a meeting for her to complete her employment paperwork days after the appeals court ruling. A few days after that, she said a law school administrator told her she was no longer a candidate for the position.
Harms, 58, said law school officials explicitly cited the controversy at their meeting, saying the university could no longer “market her’’ as planned.
In a letter to Harms’s lawyer, BU’s deputy general counsel, Erika Geetter, wrote that although the law school had been “very optimistic’’ Harms would be hired, it had not formally made a job offer.
The school had reached a “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.
The school concluded that Harms was “not the appropriate candidate for an outreach position that required immediate and sustained interactions with students, alumni, and the judiciary.’’
Harms said she began meeting last summer with administrators at the law school last summer, and said they ultimately created a new position that was designed specifically for her and that it was not posted publicly.
Harms said she and the university had agreed on a salary and a day before her decision became public an administrator asked her for a biography and a photograph so she could be introduced to the law school community. She said she understood the paperwork was a formality.
In a Jan. 30 letter, the lawyer for Harms, Joan A. Lukey, said it was “extremely improbable’’ that the law school would have failed to hire Harms if the opinion had not involved abortion.
Harms said she decided to disclose BU’s actions because she believes they were “antithetical’’ to the concept of judicial independence, and to explain to her colleagues why she will not be working there.
“It’s about principle,’’ she said.
The judge’s decision, which has been sealed, stemmed from a petition from the schizophrenic woman’s parents to have their daughter declared incompetent, a step that would allow them to be named guardians and seek a court-ordered abortion.
The woman has been pregnant three times, and had one abortion previously. Her parents have custody of her child.
The judge ruled in favor of the abortion, drawing national attention and raising concerns that courts were not properly heeding the wishes of those with severe mental illness.
Harms said of her ruling that she was deeply concerned that the woman, known in court records as “Mary Moe,’’ would try to harm herself during her pregnancy, describing the interruption of her regular treatment as “potentially life-threatening.’’
In overturning Harms’s ruling, the appeals court said her sterilization order was produced “out of thin air.’’ But Harms said she felt obliged to determine what the woman’s wishes would be absent her mental illness.
“Certainly, the easy road for me as the trial judge would have been to avoid this topic and I did find this the most difficult part of an unrelentingly difficult decision,’’ she wrote. “After much thought, the issue seemed to me to be too closely connected to, if not inextricable from, my “substituted judgment’’ that an abortion was appropriate.’’