Forced Sterilization: Problem Solved?

Author: Regina Paulose

In 1927 the US Supreme Court heard the case of Carrie Buck, a “feeble minded” woman, who was locked up in a state institution. The laws in Virginia gave the superintendent of the institution authority to determine that if it was in the “best interest of the patients and of society” the inmate may be sexually sterilized.  The US Supreme Court voted in favor of Virginia’s statute on forced sterilization. Following Buck v. Bell, many states in the US modeled Virginia’s statute and sterilized the disabled, mentally challenged, the poor, and those who were convicted criminals. In addition, the US government admitted to sterilizing more than 2,000 Native American women during the 1970’s.  Canada has also forcibly coerced indigenous women to be sterilized. Sadly, the practice of eugenics or compulsory sterilization is not limited to North America.

India, persuaded by “loans” given to the country through USAID, World Bank, United Nations, and Swedish International Development Authority, began an ambitious “family planning” program in the 1970’s. The program targeted the poor and underprivileged. As of 2015, estimates show that in India 4.5 million women are sterilized a year. The majority of those women do not give consent to be sterilized. Women in government sterilization camps have died as a result of botched procedures. In China, under the country’s “two child policy” forced sterilization has also continued.

More than 30 countries, at one point, in Europe practiced forced sterilization. The practices have been carried out towards Roma and other minorities as well as transgendered people.


Credit: One Political Plaza

In Latin America, forced sterilization was also used by various countries. In Peru, approximately 300,000 impoverished people (men and women) were sterilized as part of a family planning program. While it was touted as a poverty reduction program, in reality it was a coercive practice that led to many medical complications and deaths. This practice is prevalent in other places in South America as well.

Legal battles have been waged against the practice of forced sterilization. In a recent victory in the European Court of Human Rights, the Court ruled that the practice of forced sterilization against transgendered people violates their human rights. (The judgement however did not end forced medical examinations or mental health orders of transgendered people). In the Americas, despite US ratification of international treaties, Buck v Bell has not been overturned. Recently in Peru, the Public Prosecutor declined to pursue charges of crimes against humanity against former leaders. However, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) recently held that forced sterilization offended the dignity of women and constituted torture. More litigation on this issue is expected out of the IACHR this coming year. Within the last five years, women in various parts of Africa have pursued cases against health care practices to stop this abhorrent practice. In South Africa, women have begun litigating specific cases of forced sterilization aimed towards those with HIV and/or AIDS and day laborers. The same legal battle is also being fought in East Africa.

It is important to positively acknowledge the status quo movements to prohibit forced sterilization. In recent years, many organizations within the United Nations have begun to emphasize the illegality of this practice. One has to question what is taking so long for states to recognize that this is a blatant human rights violation considering “enforced sterilization” is listed under Article 7, crimes against humanity, of the Rome Statute. There are actions that countries can take to remedy this situation. Countries can begin to heal these rifts by issuing public apologies and providing reparations to men and women. States can introduce the practice of obtaining medical consents and informing patients of the full spectrum of effects sterilization has on the body. The international community needs to examine the World Bank’s Family Planning 2020 (FP 2020) program and determine if it is encouraging illegal practices to be conducted. Further, there is a need for appropriate medical education regarding infectious diseases, so that forced sterilization is not continued out of ignorance. Finally, countries should also consider the Interagency Statement issued by the World Health Organization and adopt its recommendations to protect citizens.