Slovakia Unlawfully Denied Roma Women Access to Their Medical Records, European Court Rules

KOSICE, Slovakia—The European Court of Human Rights today ruled that Slovakia violated the rights of eight Roma women by denying them full access to their medical records. The women are seeking copies of their records as evidence that they were forcibly sterilized after giving birth.

“This case indicates the complicity of the Slovak government in the practice of forced sterilization of Romani women,” said Barbora Bukovska, one of the representatives of the applicants in this case. “Originally, in spring of 2002, we were able to access and copy medical records of our clients. But as soon as the hospitals realized we were seeking access to medical records on forced sterilizations, they halted the access. The Slovak government, instead of rectifying the situation, supported the hospitals in their position and over the years, denied their responsibility for the violations. All of this in order to prevent forcibly sterilized Romani women from finding the truth about their sterilization surgeries and seeking justice.”

The eight women, who each underwent caesaren sections in Presov or Spisska Nova Ves Hospitals, discovered they were unable to conceive following the surgeries. In 2002, the women joined with the Center for Civil and Human Rights to seek answers about their sterilizations and attempted to access and copy their medical records held by the hospitals. The hospitals denied their requests, claiming the patients did not have the right to access this information. The Roma women subsequently filed lawsuits with the Slovak courts, including the Constitutional Court. However, the courts denied their requests, arguing that the records were owned by hospitals and copying the records could lead to abuse of privacy. Instead, the women were only granted permission to read the records and take hand written notes on the contents.

In August 2004, the women filed a case with the European Court seeking the right to obtain copies of their records. The women said that the records prove that they were sterilized at the hospitals. They argued that they were being denied access to justice because their prospects of success in litigation would be hampered if they could not submit their medical records as evidence in court. They also argued that they needed copies in case the original files were destroyed by the hospitals. The Slovak government claimed that providing the women with copies of their own medical records could lead to abuse of the files. Today, the European Court dismissed the arguments of the Slovak government and ruled in favor of the women.

The European Court ruled that people have the right to access their medical information, and persons who wished to obtain photocopies of documents containing their personal data should not have been obliged to make specific justification as to why they needed the copies. Instead, it is the responsibility of the authority in possession of the data to prove that there are compelling reasons for not providing that information. The European Court also dismissed the argument that the files could have been abused by the women, noting that it did not see how the women could abuse information concerning their own medical conditions by making photocopies of the medical files.

The European Court also accepted the argument that the Roma women had been in a state of uncertainty about their health and reproductive ability following their treatment in the hospitals. It also agreed that without the right to copy their files, the Roma women were prevented from filing civil lawsuits in Slovak courts against the hospitals.

“We applaud the decision of the European Court because it recognizes that the state and medical professionals have to respect the rights of patients to access information on their medical conditions,” said Vanda Durbakova, an attorney representing the victims.

The European Court also granted each applicant a financial compensation of 3,500 EUR (28,000 EUR total) as well as the recovery of legal costs.

To read the full ruling of the European Court of Human Rights visit their website.

The Open Society Institute supported the Center for Civil and Human Rights in pursuing this case.