North Carolina’s legislature has just agreed to set up a $10 million fund to compensate the victims of forced sterilizations.
It is estimated that about 7,600 people were forcibly sterilized between 1929 and 1974, the Associated Press reported July 22. There was a variety of reasons behind the sterilizations. Some were considered mentally retarded, others were simply considered undesirable in some way.
Sterilizing those considered “unfit” is not, however, a practice confined to the past. Recently news came out about the sterilization of prisoners in California’s goals.
At least 148 female inmates were sterilized between 2006 and 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported July 13. The women did sign a consent form, but some women told the newspaper that they felt pressured or misled into consenting.
In one case a woman was operated on for a suspected cancer and she gave permission for her ovaries to be removed if cancer were found. No cancer was found, but the doctor removed her ovaries anyway.
Doctors repeatedly harassed and pressured inmates to be sterilized, affirmed state senator Ted Lieu, in a letter written to the Medical Board of California, according to a July 15 article in the Los Angeles Times.
The United States is far from being the only place where the issue of sterilization is still a problem. On July 17 in Australia the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs issued a report on the sterilization of handicapped people.
During 10 months the senators investigated claims that some people with disabilities were being sterilized without giving informed consent. The inquiry was headed by Senator Sue Boyce, who has a daughter with Down syndrome.
The report did not come out in favor of a complete ban on sterilizations, but it did make a series of recommendations intended to prevent any abuses.
For example, it recommended that state legislation be amended to assume that persons with disabilities have the capacity to make their own decisions unless it is objectively assessed otherwise. It also recommended that tribunals not hear petitions for sterilization where the person concerned has legal capacity.
There were also a series of recommendations regarding legal representation and covering legal costs when cases come before the courts.
During the investigations in past months there was anecdotal evidence presented about families taking children with disabilities overseas to have them sterilized. One of the recommendations in the report said that the states should enact legislation to make this illegal.
The report commented that people with disabilities, like other people, want to be able to control their lives, and some may want to be parents. Yet, the report noted, many consider that people with disabilities are not capable of being parents.
The committee also heard that “people with disability encountered discrimination, stereotyping and disadvantage in trying to achieve goals and aspirations similar to those of the rest of the population.”
One of the arguments used to support sterilization is that people with disabilities could be exploited or abused, resulting in pregnancy. The committee said that the solution to this is to provide improved services and support and that this will reduce any need for sterilization.
“The committee abhors the suggestion that sterilisation ever be used as a means of managing the pregnancy risks associated with sexual abuse and strongly recommends that this must never be a factor in approval of sterilisation,” stated one of the recommendations.
Dignity and rights
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference made a submission to the inquiry in which they argued that people with disabilities have the right to marry and have a family and to participate in family and social life, according to their abilities.
“Having children is one of the greatest human needs, and having children and contributing to future generations is a very rich experience that should not be denied to people with disability who have that ability,” the submission stated.
Involuntary or coerced sterilization not only takes away a person’s autonomy, but it also is a message that the concerns of others take priority over the wellbeing of people with disabilities.
“It is important to ensure the consideration is focused on the dignity and needs of the person with disability, rather than the needs of their carers,” the bishops urged.
Instead of sterilization the submission recommended that parents and carers should receive adequate training. People with disabilities should also be provided with education and support, along with pre-marriage formation and further support once they marry.
The submission acknowledged the difficulties faced by people with disabilities, which is why families need support.
“There is no point to demanding the rights of people with disability, if we cannot also support families and carers in their challenging role to help achieve that,” the bishops noted.
Providing this support is certainly harder and costlier than simply sterilizing people, but it is the way to respect the dignity and rights of people with disabilities.