Against Her Will: Forced and Coerced Sterilization of Women World Wide

The Open Society Foundation’s Stop Torture in Health Care campaign recently released a report titled Against Her Will: Forced and Coerced Sterilization of Women World Wide, revealing that even though sterilizing women without consent is a violation of international human rights law many governments are still overlooking, or even promoting, forced and coerced sterilization.

Coerced and forced sterilization have different definitions but in practice have the same results: an irreversible inability to reproduce. Coerced sterilization is the name given when people are pressured through financial incentives, false information, or intimidation—for example, when employers require women to have “sterilization certificates” as a condition for employment, or when clinicians refuse medical treatment until HIV-positive women consent to sterilization. Both of these examples, documented in the new report, violate the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics ethical guidelines.

When a person is sterilized without their knowledge or consent prior to the procedure, such as woman being sterilized immediately after cesarean sections without doctors informing or consulting before the procedure, it’s called forced sterilization. In many ways, coerced and forced sterilization are essentially the same: people are forced or manipulated into losing their ability to reproduce.

Domestically, the United States of America has a long history of coercive sterilization of Indigenous people and people of color. Internationally, Indigenous people and women of color are most often the targets of forced and coerced sterilization. In 2009, the Czech government disclosed that Romani women may still be sterilized after cesarean sections without providing consent, even though it is a violation of international human rights law. Women in labor may be inaccurately told that sterilization is an immediate safety necessity, even though sterilization itself is never a medical emergency.

The Indian government sanctions coercive sterilization as part of Uttar Pradesh’s family planning program; by paying private sector physicians per sterilization of women in “sterilization camps” the government is essentially motivating physicians to sterilize its citizens. As the report explains, “poor, illiterate women were rushed through the consent process. They were asked to put their thumb print on the consent form without being read its content or having the procedure fully explained. Women were informed only about sterilization and no other possible long-term methods of family planning.”

In Uzbekistan, some women even have to provide a “sterilization certificate” to be employed, such as one mother from eastern Uzbekistan, who was required to show a certificate confirming she was sterilized before being hired as a preschool director. She was only offered the job after undergoing the procedure and producing the certificate, meaning financial independence for some women is dependent on relinquishing control over their reproductive abilities. In all of these cases, the governments are attempting to control the population by preventing poor or working class women from reproducing, but not dealing with the causes of economic inequality among the people.

In some African countries, such as South Africa, Kenya, and Namibia, HIV-positive women are targeted for sterilization or long-term contraption. Project Prevention, a group that originally focused on promoting sterilization or long-term contraception to drug using women (to prevent them from having children rather than promoting safe rehabilitation or harm reduction approaches) claims this coercion is necessary as a way to prevent infants who would be born HIV-positive from short and unhealthy lives. This practice is taking place across the world, perpetuating the myths that not only are HIV-positive people unfit to be parents, but that HIV will be transmitted from mother to fetus. In reality, with proper medical care HIV is very unlikely to be transmitted to the fetus. By preventing women who are drug users or HIV positive from becoming mothers these groups are promoting beliefs and prejudices that certain people are burdens on society and unfit to reproduce.

Coerced and forced sterilization, and having your ability to be a parent restricted in other ways, isn’t limited to female-bodied people. As Gabriel Arkles explained in 2008, gender-nonconforming people in the United States are disproportionately low-income due mainly to discrimination. They not only may have a difficult time adopting or keeping/gaining custody of children, but also often end up in prison as a result of over-policing. The criminal justice system is controlling the reproductive abilities of trans people by keeping them in prison during child bearing years, as well as in other ways.

Against Her Will: Forced and Coerced Sterilization of Women World Wide summarizes the grave international human rights injustices concerning forced and coerced sterilization. The sterilization of people against their will is the tell-tale tip of the iceberg when we have government bodies deciding what groups of people have the “privilege” to parent by controlling our human rights.

*All data from the report unless otherwise noted.

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