What's The Truth Behind Forced Sterilization Of Disabled Women In Europe?

While forced sterilization is condemned globally, legislative gaps and exceptions persist. Over a third of European nations, signatories to the Istanbul Convention, have made exceptions, leaving disabled individuals vulnerable.

Oshi Saxena
New Update

Despite international treaties like the Istanbul Convention unequivocally banning nonconsensual sterilization, a New York Times investigation exposes a harsh truth. Over a third of European nations, signatories to the convention, have carved exceptions permitting sterilisation for those deemed too disabled to consent. The disparity in national laws and inconsistent enforcement spotlight the lingering shadows in the fight against forced sterilization.


Through the Times investigation, the story of Anita unfolds, a 28-year-old woman whose world is painted with facial expressions and gentle sounds. Unable to comprehend complex information, Anita's struggle takes an unexpected turn when caregivers recommend an aggressive solution to ease her monthly discomfort—a hysterectomy.  Even in a progressive society like Iceland, caregivers proposed this drastic measure without considering Anita's ability to make choices about her own body. Eirikur Smith, an official in Iceland's disability office, uncovered this shocking plan during a routine visit, highlighting the lack of awareness and empathy.

Legal Gaps and Loopholes

While forced sterilization is officially banned under the Istanbul Convention, the New York Times investigation reveals that over a third of European nations, including Iceland, have made exceptions for disabled individuals, claiming it is in their best interest. The legal landscape, marred by gaps and loopholes, fails to adequately protect the rights of intellectually disabled women. The United Nations standards suggest alternative ways of communicating with severely disabled individuals, but these measures are seldom implemented.

While medical experts assert the rarity of such practices, inconsistent record-keeping and unreliable data obscure the full extent of the issue. In the case of Iceland, a nation known for its commitment to human rights, the government lacks a tally, creating a shadow over the magnitude of the problem.

Iceland's Dark Past and Ongoing Struggle

Iceland, with its Nordic neighbours, carries an aneighbourstory of sterilization policies dating back to 1938. While the country has distanced itself from these practices, instances like Anita's case reveal persistent challenges. The Ministry of Health emphasizes its commitment to human rights, but the specter of past transfections still looms. Examining the post-ban landscape, we find that Iceland's health ministry operated a committee approving sterilizations, shedding light on a systematic failure.  The disbanding of the committee in 2019 does not mark the end, as sterilization cases persist.


The Convenient Compromise: Best Interests or Convenience?

Catalina Devandas Aguilar, a former UN special rapporteur for disability rights, reveals a disturbing pattern to the New York Times, where decisions are made purportedly in the best interest of disabled women but often serve the convenience of families or caregiving institutions. The shift from historical government-led sterilizations to parental and caregiver decisions adds a layer of complexity to the issue.

Legislative Quandaries: The Gray Areas of the Law

France and Belgium grapple with their legal dilemmas. In France, sterilization is permitted under certain circumstances for those with severe mental disabilities. The complexity of these decisions is evident in the words of Ghada Hatem-Gantzer, a Paris gynaecologist who challenges the perception of sterilization while acknowledging the distress of parents.

“When we say ‘sterilization of the disabled,’ we might sound like Nazis, but this completely ignores the diversity of disabilities, the gravity of certain disabilities, and the distress of parents,” said Ghada Hatem-Gantzer told to The New York Times

In Belgium, illegal sterilizations persist, raising questions about the enforcement of strict laws. Even in nations with strict regulations, loopholes persist, allowing sterilizations to happen, sometimes without the understanding or consent of the individuals involved.


As we widen our lens, the global issue of forced sterilization reveals itself. In the United States, laws allowing forced sterilization persist in 31 states and Washington, D.C., according to the National Women's Law Center. The pretext of helping disabled individuals clashes with the stark reality of stripping them of control over their bodies.

India: A Double Discrimination

In India, women with disabilities face double discrimination based on gender and disability. Forced sterilization, often used as a method to regulate fertility, becomes a form of torture and a violation of rights. The eugenics theory, which excludes people with disabilities from society, still lingers, impacting the reproductive autonomy of disabled women. While international laws, such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, address forced sterilization, India faces a legal conundrum. The Right to Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD) makes strides, yet gaps remain. Consent, often influenced, becomes a critical issue, denying disabled women true reproductive autonomy. 

The need for "express consent" raises concerns about the genuine autonomy of disabled women in decision-making. Court decisions, like the one in Suchita v Chandigarh, emphasize limited guardianship, yet the gap between legal principles and practical implementation persists.

What Are The Solutions?

Internationally, organizations like Women Enabled International collaborate to increase accessibility to sexual and reproductive health services for disabled women. In India, local initiatives, such as Project Samarth, address menstrual awareness for disabled girls, combating the challenges in managing menstruation that often lead to forced sterilization.

The global ban, though a step forward, falls short of its promise, leaving a trail of unheard voices and silent struggles. The call to action is clear: it requires not only legislative amendments but a societal shift in perception, and a recognition that disability should never be a justification for stripping away fundamental human rights. Disabled women should not bear the brunt of a system that fails to protect their fundamental rights. It is not just a legal issue; it is a call for empathy, justice, and a reevaluation of societal attitudes towards disability.

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