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Sarah Catt needs psychiatric help more than punishment

The case of the woman jailed for killing her unborn child has raised some disturbing questions

By on Friday, 21 September 2012

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”.

  • nytor

    She refused to reveal the whereabouts of the body so no post mortem could be carried out. One of the reasons took such a dim view of this is that we cannot be sure the baby was not born alive and killed thereafter. She clearly deserves a stiff prison sentence.

  • teigitur

    I would agree that the lady needs help. Surely no-one in their right mind would do what she has done?

  • Ben Trovato

    The headline and the body of this article seem to me to be premised on the assumption that punishments are for the good of the offender.

    Whilst rehabilitation or cure is an important side-effect one would aim for in a civilised society, they are not the reason or justification for punishment. C S Lewis demonstrated quite how cruel and dangerous such a seemingly benign approach would be in practice. He wrote, of this Humanitarian view:

    “Those who hold it think that it is mild and merciful. In this I believe that they are seriously mistaken. I believe that the “Humanity” which it claims is a dangerous illusion and disguises the possibility of cruelty and injustice without end. I urge a return to the traditional or Retributive theory not solely, not even primarily, in the interests of society, but in the interests of the criminal.”

    It is worth reading the rest of his essay: The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment (eg here:

  • Bob Hayes

    I know little of the specifics of this case, so my following comment is a general one. Are shocking deeds (such as Sarah Catt’s) always to have a psychiatric explanation? Is a grossly wicked act always to be deemed the product of a disordered mind? Do we still believe in free will? In right and wrong; good and evil? I suggest we need to be very cautious before rushing to medicalise behaviour that we find repugnant: acts that are evil and morally wrong.

  • Caroline Farrow

    It seems that the judge had access to an existing psychological report which indicated no history of problems, although I admit my reaction was similar – here is a woman with some severe issues. 

    The drug that Sarah Catt used to induce her abortion – misoprostel, is used to induce labour in women who have gone over their due date, indeed I was given the exact same drug to induce the birth of my first daughter. Therefore there is a very strong possibility that the infant was delivered alive. The fact that the body was concealed, does raise questions as to what exactly happened and Mrs Catt has done nothing to indicate the location of the remains, which would at least indicate a measure of remorse. 

    Though the sentence does seem harsh, I think we need to keep in mind that 37 weeks is considered a full term baby by the medical profession, although I agree there is a great deal of hypocrisy inherent in the sentence. 

    To my mind, the judge was correct in his sentencing – after all had this been a man procuring the drug and disposing of the child for his partner, there would not be an outcry as to the sentence, and nor would there be, had the mother murdered the child after it was born. 

    Mrs Catt will probably serve half of her 8 year jail term. I think as Ben pointed out, we have to ask ourselves what is the point of criminal sanctions – not just to rehabilitate or act as a deterrent but also to punish in order that justice may be served. A likely 4 year spell in jail, in compared to the deliberate and wilful destruction of life of a full-term baby is nothing. I am sure Sarah Catt will have access to mental health professionals if it suddenly becomes apparent that she does require help, but in the meantime, I believe the sentence is well deserved. 

    She knew full well what she was doing was against the law – even Marie Stopes refused to carry out the abortion. One doesn’t just search for late-term abortion drugs and order them on the internet, book a day off work and induce a baby, without some level of foresight or knowledge that what one is doing is illegal. Whatever the outcome she would have needed to give birth to a baby she didn’t want. It seems very selfish not to have given this baby up for adoption, instead of denying him the opportunity and gift of life that he deserved. 

    Admittedly I have just given birth, so I may not be being as objective or impartial as others. 

  • guest

    great piece. and so was odone’s.

  • Lewispbuckingham

     Whatever her state of mind at the time of the abortion, being temporary insanity or clear premedicated will, she surely will now be suffering from post traumatic stress and in need of treatment.We can only pray that she may be healed.

  • parepidemos

    I completely agree with what you have written about the need for professional help as such acts are not the fruit of a balanced state of mind. A stiff prison sentence alone is not the answer.

  • paulpriest

     A child is dead therefore I have no desire to dwell on the intricacies of the issues involved like some morbid parasite – but Teigitur I think you have put your finger on the issue:

    This doesn’t add up: The psycho-pathology is wrong – very wrong; none of it makes any sense and I’m sorry when it comes to the mentally ill things do make sense – reasons/motives/ends are all contained in some trapped bubble where even in desperate circumstances; those who lose their mind do not lose their reason.
    Lies which make things worse? Deception when defence counsels will be using every means to unlock it all? A dead body wilfully hidden when even if she had killed the child at birth it would have made things more lenient for her had it been discovered?
    What we already know is terrible enough…but I think the unknown’s much worse.
    At times like this we should run to the cross – and pray hard for all involved

  • chiaramonti

    One of the major problems in modern psychiatry is the ease with which people who commit evil acts are sometimes permitted or encouraged to find solace in their so called psychological problems. Many psychiatrists are aware of this and try and ensure that such individuals accept responsibility for what they have done. It helps no-one, especially the criminal, if they are allowed to think it is someone else’s fault or a consequence of their own inadequacies or upbringing. Of course their life history plays a part, this is inevitable, but in circumstances such as these it cannot amount to an excuse. The judge plainly appreciated this in imposing the sentence that he did. The reason she did what she did was because she chose freely to do so. She has to accept responsibility which includes accepting punishment. Of course, she must also be offered appropriate assistance but in a custodial setting for now.

  • Amkennedypayen

    Sad, very sad.

  • aearon43

    Why does it have to be either/or? Why not both/and? I think this woman can use all the help she can get: from the justice system, to help her pay her debt to society, from a physician, to heal her mind, and hopefully from a priest, as well…

  • JabbaPapa

    “Secularists” and some atheism evangelists seem to be mounting a rather obnoxious attack on the sentencing currently, basically accusing Mr Justice Cooke of having applied Christian values in his judgment, as if this were somehow inherently “wrongful” !!!!

    Some seem to be going so far as to paint this evil woman as some sort of “victim”, suggesting that she did nothing terribly wrong because this baby was unborn, therefore some kind of un-person.

    Put simply, these people place no value whatsoever on the value of human life, except when it suits their twisted values to do so, that is to say when it suits them in this case to consider the value of this murderer as being of higher value than that of the murdered child.

    These sorts of views are just evil, pure and simple.

  • NewMeena

    ” …accusing Mr Justice Cooke of having applied Christian values in his judgment, as if this were somehow inherently “wrongful” !!!!”

    So if we have a fundamentalist, or orthodox, judge of some other religion (or an atheist judge), can s/he impose her or his religious values (or total lack of them) on people being tried for offences delineated by the secular state?

  • NewMeena

    The news in the papers today (Saturday 22nd September) – on page 2 of my Daily Torygraph – is that the judge who imposed this sentence and made the reported remarks, belongs to a campaigning Christian abortion group which seeks to have more conservative termination laws imposed on our society.

    The Judge is reported as having been a vice-president of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, which describes itself as being dedicated to “applying God’s justice on the ground”. (Note: NOT “applying the Law of England and Wales on the ground”).

    What’s so wrong about this? Well, some would say “everything”. There “could be” (“is”, in fact) some disagreement about what “God’s justice” actually means and actually is – and quite a large and  growing number of people who believe it means nothing at all.

    Just two of several basic questions which might surely be asked are: “should not judges in England and Wales apply only the law of England and Wales in meeting-out justice?  And, are they not acting illegally if they don’t?”

  • JessicaHof

    Thank you for this article Francis. It is so easy to condemn her, and of course, what she did was wicked, but she is human, a child of God and in need of something more from her fellow human beings than condemnation

  • Bob Hayes

    Judges are required to work within the framework of the law, be it the sentencing range (set out in the relevant Act of Parliament) or guidance on a tariff (usually set out by the Justice Secretary). A judge handing down a sentence outside this framework would be open to challenge. That one disagrees with a sentence handed down is hardly grounds for suggesting a judge is ‘acting illegally’.

  • JabbaPapa

    This is baby killing under discussion, not some ridiculously stupid atheist fantasy scenario.

  • NewMeena

    That one disagrees with a sentence handed down is hardly grounds for suggesting a judge is ‘acting illegally’.”

    I’m not saying that I disagree with the sentence. But I do agree basically with Francis Phillips’ view that this woman needs help more than a spell locked up at HM’s pleasure – which seems to do no good at all (but rather positive harm) for most, and very little for the rest, of those who experience it. 

    It is tragic that a full-term (real!) baby is killed just before natural birth. This was no so-called “pre-born baby” (or, in truth an early foetus) of the “anti-abortion always” lobby  -  but a human child, who must have experienced distress and pain during the process of her or his killing. 

    I am agreeing, more or less, with your view that the judge should only have regard to the framework of law (in this case the law of England and Wales) in reaching decisions.
    She or he surely has no right to apply “God’s justice”, whatever s/he understands by that. The judge must only apply “the Law of England and Wales”.

    On this ground alone, I look to this woman’s defence to ensure that the sentence is deemed void. 

  • NewMeena

    I agree this has been the killing of a baby human being (see above).

    But do you have an answer to my question?

    “…if we have a fundamentalist, or orthodox, judge of some other religion (or an atheist judge), can s/he impose her or his religious values (or total lack of them) on people being tried for offences delineated by the secular state?” (Or should the judge act within the framework of the law of the land?)

  • JabbaPapa

    I did answer your question — I described your question as a “ridiculously stupid atheist fantasy scenario”.

    I mean what — did you expect it to be taken seriously ???


  • Bob hayes

    ‘On this ground alone, I look to this woman’s defence to ensure that the sentence is deemed void’. Are you asking for the sentence or the verdict to be overturned by a defence appeal. If the former, you are contradicting your statement that, ‘I’m not saying that I disagree with the sentence’. If the latter, are you seeking not guilty verdict or a retrial? A not guilty verdict would fly in the face of all the evidence. A retrial would subject witnesses and the accused to the full rigour of another hearing of the evidence. If Sarah Catt has a psychiatric disorder, a retrial will not help matters.

  • paulpriest

     The judge acted within the framework of the law – shame on you for suggesting anything otherwise and bringing in anti-Christian bigotry.

  • NewMeena

    No I’m not contradicting myself. I don’t know whether the sentence is fair and right, or not. Although I have a general feeling that prison does little or no good in general.

    My main interest in this affair is the  possibility that the judge might not have confined himself to the law of the land in reaching decisions and in advising and instructing a jury.
    The woman has a right to English justice, not “God’s justice” – whatever that is. An understanding of the latter differs between individuals, and some believe there is no such thing.

    Surely her defence will take this up? 

  • NewMeena

    There is nothing anti-Christian in my comments.

    Can you give an answer to my question?

    “…if we have a fundamentalist, or orthodox, judge of some other religion (or an atheist judge), can s/he impose her or his religious values – of whatever kind – (or total lack of them – i.e. her or his atheist views) on people being tried for offences delineated by the secular state?” (Or should the judge only act within the framework of the law of the land?) 

  • Jeannine

    Where’s the husband in all this? Did he threaten her, encourage her….? Didn’t he have a say?

  • NewMeena

    PS: There is no solid reason to believe that the judge was influenced by his religious beliefs. But given his former status in, and membership of, this above-mentioned Christian Lawyers’ group, you might understand why some people are thinking about it.

  • NewMeena

    Please add the following to the end of my above posting:

    ……. the law of the land and not allow her or his own religious or atheistic views to influence her or his decisions and statements made in court.

  • paulpriest

     …and I repeat you are imposing a scenario which DOES NOT EXIST!!!
    Now please either state something constructive or go forth and multiply…

  • Parasum

    Why is that so unimaginable ? “No sane person would do X”, especially when asked as a question, is a very dangerous notion: sane people do do X, regardless of how heinous or yucky or incredible to the speaker X may be. The question is not logically different from the fallacy of “poisoning the wells”, except that it can asked sympathetically.

    People in their right minds exposed or killed unwanted children – so this is really not very surprising, if surprising at all. It is only inherited cultural assumptions that make us suppose that sane people “can’t” be in their “right minds” if they commit genocide, infanticide, parricide, and other taboo or immoral acts.

    This is sad, certainly; but the only surprising thing is to see that people are surprised. What else do people expect, after almost 50 years of legalised abortion ? Reverence for human life ? If prospective mothers can destroy their own foetuses/unborn offspring; are encouraged to think of them as “aggressors”; are deluged, like the rest of us, with endless exhortations to selfishness, callousness, materialism, and hedonism: what else is to be expected ? Matters are not helped by having too rosy a view of human nature either; that is asking for trouble.

    I know nothing of this particular case BTW.

  • spudbynight

    Are you suggesting that the Judge’s actions in this case were not lawful? 

    If so can you provide evidence please.

  • mollysdad

    Read the judge’s sentencing remarks. He had presented to him a psychiatric report which disclosed no condition of any kind.

  • NewMeena

    No, I’m not.

    It is quite possible that he ignored his religious opinions and prejudices, and applied only England’s (and Wales’) justice – and not God’s justice – which means different things to different people, and absolutely nothing at all to some people.

    I trust he did so.

    But there is obviously a danger that some religious person, or even an atheist, might try to apply aspects of their own religious or atheistic beliefs to matters which should be totally devoid of such personal beliefs.

  • nytor

    He acted entirely in line with the sentencing guidelines and given that this child may have been born alive and killed after birth I think she got off lightly. Take your pseudo-legal nonsense elsewhere, there is no way of “deeming a sentence void”, it must be overturned on appeal and this isn’t going to happen.

  • Jonathan Manning

    Bob Hayes makes a good point.  You could look at every criminal and find a pattern of disturbing behaviour in their history but it doesn’t mean that prison is the wrong option.  At least for the next four years she won’t be able to conceive any children who would be at risk of suffering abortion.  If I had a mental illness that made me want to kill people I would hope to be incapacited for the duration of the illness.  Then when I recovered I wouldn’t have to live with the knowledge that I had killed someone.