When Sonya Star Flanary was 5 months old, a car wreck in Gaithersburg left her blind, severely retarded and partially paralyzed on her right side.
Tragedy struck again when Sonya was 10. Her father died in an auto accident. Sonya's mother, Rena K. Flanary, was left alone with three other children and had to find a job. Sonya was left in her grandmother's care.
Since then, Sonya, now 12, has become the focus of a sterilization controversy that is now before Maryland courts and may reach the legislature.
Nancy Wentzel, Sonya's 61-year-old legal guardian and grandmother, wants court permission for doctors to perform a hysterectomy on the young girl, who has been declared mentally incompetent by a circuit court.
In the General Assembly, House Bill 1022, a measure empowering state judges to sanction the sterilization of severely retarded persons, is pending before the Environmental Matters Committee, where proposed changes in the state's medical laws are introduced. Committee hearings are scheduled to begin Tuesday in Annapolis.
"Any child in Sonya's condition is not capable of caring for herself if anything happened to her, if she was molested, raped or anything.She certainly wouldn't be able to care for a child, and the family would be left with another child to raise," said Wentzel. "I'm fearful of her going into the world. I don't know what could happen to her and that is why I want the operation."
Efforts to obtain the necessary court permission for the sterilization have failed. Judges appear reluctant to tackle such a sensitive issue. "This case is a hot one," said Thomas Beight, Wentzel's attorney. "Nobody wants it. . . Everyone is being extremely careful."
Flanary's legal odyssey began in 1979 when Montgomery Circuit Court Judge John J. Mitchell refused to allow doctors at Montgomery County hospital to perform the surgery.
Judge Mitchell wrote in his opinion, "In the main, I am most persuaded that this court is powerless to grant the (sterilization) unless it is conclusively proven that the problem is a medical necessity."
In his summation, Mitchell urged the state's appellate courts and the legislature to resolve the dilemma. The following year the case went before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, but was dismissed on a legal technicality.
Then last week, the Montgomery County Circuit Court -- where Beight filed a new suit -- postponed the case when a lawyer failed to complete a court-ordered report. The hearing has been delayed another month.
Del. Torrey C. Brown, a physician, cosponsored the sterilization bill with Montgomery County Del. Judith Toth. Said Brown, "When the judge says, 'Don't ask me,' well, who the hell do you ask?" The Flanary case will loom large in the Assembly's impending hearings, he added.
Brown, citing opposition from religious and right-to-life groups, said, "I've already been called a Nazi for putting the bill in."
The Maryland Association for Retarded Citizens also is wary of the proposed legislation. Monroe Karasik, the association's president, said the General Assembly may be addressing a ghost issue. "I really don't know whether severely retarded children are having children or not, or if so how many."
He said contraceptive devices should be considered before people are stripped of the ability to procreate because some persons declared incompetent later improve enough to live productive lives.
Brown said he and Toth want a tightly drawn law that imposes a number of conditions on court sanctioning of sterilizations. "The criteria have to be the most rigid possible."
"I think it is a serious problem. You can imagine the frustration of an older parent who has a sexually active but retarded child. The kids are incompetent. It's just terrible," he said. "I doubt if anything will pass this year. But we need to get going on this."