People who undergo sterilization surgery may sue their doctors if they later give birth to a child, even if that child is normal and healthy, the Utah Supreme Court has ruled.
In a 4-1 ruling, the court said Utahns who experience so-called "wrongful pregnancy" have the right to sue their doctors for negligent surgery or counseling.The decision stemmed from a case pending in federal court involving an unidentified woman who was sterilized, fearing her children would inherit psychiatric problems. She later became pregnant and gave birth to a normal child.
The woman now claims her doctor did not tell her the sterilization was not 100 percent effective and that other procedures were available.
Judge David Sam asked Supreme Court justices to decide whether the law allows for such suits and what damages should be allowed.
Although four justices recognized the woman's right to sue, they were sharply divided over the question of damages. Two said the wronged parents could not recover the costs of rearing and educating the child. Two said such damages should be left up to a jury.
Chief Justice Gordon Hall, writing for the majority, said he agreed with most other states in finding that parents can sue for wrongful pregnancy.
Hall also agreed with rulings from most other states that parents should not recover damages for child-rearing expenses.
Hall and Justice Daniel Stewart said courts could not determine whether the birth of a healthy child damaged its parents, and whether the costs of rearing it were outweighed by the emotional benefits of having a normal, healthy child.
However, they said it would be appropriate for the court to award damages for medical costs, physical and mental pain, lost wages and punitive damages.
But, in separate dissenting opinions, Justices Christine Durham and Michael Zimmerman said the question of damages for child-rearing costs should be left to a jury.
"Recovery for child-rearing expenses is, in my view, appropriate when a negligently caused pregnancy forces upon parents substantial economic, emotional, or physical hardships which they sought to avoid," Durham said.
However, Justice Richard Howe issued a sharply worded dissent, saying a wrongful pregnancy action "denigrates human life and awards damages for the birth of a healthy child."
Howe said the child someday will learn his parents sued for damages because they didn't want the child.
"The court's holding is an insidious attack on the family unit," he said. "The emotional harm inflicted by this cruel knowledge will be carried by the child throughout his or her life."