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The Global Problem of Forced Sterilization

Reproductive justice advocates scored a victory last month when the World Medical Association publicly took a stance against forced sterilization and called on medical practitioners worldwide to end the abuse.

Dr. Wonchat Subhachaturas, President of the WMA, wrote:

“Regrettably, cases of coerced sterilization continue to be reported in countries across the globe. Persons are being forcibly sterilized, either without knowing the procedure has been performed or without being given the opportunity to consent…This is a misuse of medical expertise, a breach of medical ethics and a clear violation of human rights. We call on all physicians and health workers to urge their governments to prohibit this unacceptable practice.”

This is a clear rebuke of the rampant denialism we hear from health workers and government officials in the countries where women continue to report being sterilized against their will—decades after the disastrous fallout from government-sponsored eugenics campaigns in Bangladesh, Peru, and the United States, to name just a few egregious examples. Hopefully, the WMA’s very public message will end the knee-jerk denialism from government leaders and help refocus energies on preventing this abuse and offering justice for the victims.

As we’ve previously blogged, impunity for forced sterilization is indeed the norm. The rights of vulnerable women—those with disabilities and those marginalized for other reasons including HIV status, race or ethnicity, and poverty to name a few—to determine the number and spacing of their children are frequently violated. Perpetrators of forced sterilization are rarely held accountable and victims are rarely compensated for this violent abuse of their rights. Despite the much-celebrated release of visionary new gynecology and obstetrics guidelines shoring up informed consent protections for contraceptive sterilization procedures, recent advances in the fight against forced sterilization have been few. Stigma, discrimination, and lack of political will to stand up for the most marginalized continue to hinder efforts to translate international human rights standards into concrete guidelines and implementable, rights-based protocols for medical professionals at the local level.

However, in the face of substantial obstacles and as a new wave of reports on forced sterilization of HIV positive women occupy the airwaves [like this recent CNN feature on Namibia], we have seen a renewed commitment by reproductive justice advocates across the world to fight this abuse and a redoubling of efforts to coordinate a global movement to ensure that all women who wish to undergo contraceptive sterilization procedures are able to do so of their own free will with fully informed consent, and that no woman is sterilized involuntarily.

Today, in contribution to this movement, the Campaign to Stop Torture in Health Care released a new tool that we hope will help advocates in this fight. Against Her Will: Forced and Coerced Sterilization of Women Worldwide, is a comprehensive factsheet on the current state of involuntary sterilization. We believe that in all countries, forced and coerced sterilization should be treated like any other form of torture. Remedies must be swift, and should include robust international and national policies stating that coercive practices are unacceptable and that full and informed consent is an indispensable element of all medical treatment. Pervasive discrimination against marginalized groups, coupled with inadequate law, policy, and practice create environments in which forced and coerced sterilization continue largely unchecked.

As we wait for judgments in pending forced sterilization cases in France and Namibia, there is much work to do outside the courts as well.  Against Her Will outlines several recommendations for governments, medical professionals, UN agencies, and donors. Some recommendations include establishing procedural guidelines and protocols to ensure that women are given sufficient time and information to provide informed consent to a sterilization procedure. Governments need to monitor public and private health centers which perform surgical sterilization to ensure that protocols are being followed, and that appropriate sanctions are taken in the event of a breach.

The Campaign to Stop Torture in Health Care website features actions for anyone who wants to put a stop to this abuse. Currently, you can send a letter to Australia's Attorney-General to demand an end to the practice of sterilizing girls and women with disabilities. Click here to send a letter now.

Health facilities are mandated to provide care, especially to society’s most vulnerable people. When hospitals and clinics allow forced and coerced sterilizations, these facilities become places of abuse and torture.

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