Ethically justified guidelines for family planning interventions to prevent pregnancy in female patients with chronic mental illness

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 1992 Jul;167(1):19-25. doi: 10.1016/s0002-9378(11)91618-4.


Objective: This article proposes ethically justified clinical guidelines for family planning interventions to prevent pregnancy in female patients.

Study design: We reviewed literature on family planning and consequences of pregnancy in patients with chronic mental illness and related that literature to ethical principles.

Results: Patients with chronic mental illness are ethically unique because they have chronically and variably impaired autonomy. Existing guidelines and proposals for family planning interventions for mentally retarded patients are shown not to apply to such patients.

Conclusion: Three sets of guidelines for three groups of patients, representing the continuum of chronically and variably impaired autonomy, are proposed: (1) a set of guidelines for patients who can achieve thresholds of autonomy, (2) a set of guidelines for patients irreversibly near thresholds of autonomy, and (3) a set of guidelines for patients irreversibly below thresholds of autonomy. These guidelines should contribute significantly to the quality of obstetric and gynecologic care for female patients with chronic mental illness.

PIP: On the basis of a review of the literature, ethical clinical guidelines for the prevention of pregnancy in women with chronic mental illness have been developed. Such women are characterized as having chronically and variably impaired autonomy in terms of their ability to make decisions about health care, including family planning. The overall strategy should be to restore impaired autonomy in health care decision making. The decision-making process involves 6 steps: 1) attending to information provided by the physician; 2) absorbing, retaining, and recalling this information; 3) cognitive understanding of the significance of the information for the woman and any potential offspring; 4) evaluation of these consequences; 5) expression of both cognitive and evaluative understanding; and 6) communication of a decision based on such understanding. Patients who can negotiate this process are capable of informed consent; those who cannot should be provided with interventions aimed at improving impaired aspects of decision making. Patients who are irreversibly near the thresholds for autonomous decision making can at least assent to medical care and should be presented with alternatives that are consistent with their values. More complex is the management of patients who are irreversibly below thresholds of autonomy in their decision-making abilities. In such cases, consideration must be given to the patient's interests (e.g.., whether pregnancy is likely to pose significant mental health and physical benefits or risks), risks to possible future children (genetic and social), and the social costs. In no case is it ethically justifiable to force the most impaired mentally ill woman to accept surgical sterilization.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Comprehension
  • Dehumanization
  • Disclosure
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Family Planning Services*
  • Female
  • Genetic Diseases, Inborn
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders*
  • Mentally Ill Persons*
  • Paternalism
  • Personal Autonomy*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications
  • Pregnant Women
  • Social Responsibility