Europe still sterilises disabled women despite the practice being a human rights violation

By Abby Amoakuh

Published Jan 8, 2024 at 03:22 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Forced sterilisation is a highly controversial practice that has been banned under multiple international treaties because it not only undermines bodily integrity and the right of a person to make their own reproductive choices but also has an extensive history of racism and eugenics. It is an ugly remnant of the past that unfortunately still rears its head today, as a recent New York Times investigation has uncovered.

The Nazi regime in Germany, for instance, infamously orchestrated not only the killings of Jews but also the forceful sterilisation of the queer community, ethnic minorities and anyone who had physical or mental disabilities.

The Istanbul Convention, which became effective in 2014, was signed by 37 nations and the European Union. It is a human rights treaty, focused mainly on oppressive and gender-based violence, that clearly states in Article 39 that all forms of forced abortion and forced sterilisation are a human rights violation.

Yet, The New York Times found that over a third of those countries have made exceptions, often for people that the government deems too disabled to consent.

Only nine countries in the EU currently criminalise forceful sterilisation, which includes Sweden, Ireland, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Poland and Spain, with Spain being the latest European country to do so, two years ago. Other countries have condemned and banned the practice but have not created legal channels to prosecute perpetrators.

In France, for instance, the law allows the sterilisation of people with severe mental disabilities under certain circumstances. Furthermore, Portugal, Hungary and the Czech Republic are the only three EU member states where the forced sterilisation of minors is also still allowed.

While the practice is still rare, research by organisations such as The Human Rights Watch suggests that it still occurs. Several NGOs in Poland also reported that disabled women living in institutions were sterilised without their consent, or at least informed consent. Overall, organisations described the occurrence of this as an issue governments often turn a blind eye to.

For this reason, Euronews interviewed Rosario Ruiz, a disabled Spanish woman, whose parents decided to sterilise her after not considering her capable of raising a child before the practice was criminalised.

“I asked myself: ‘What have they done with my life?’,” she told the publication. “Am I useless? Can everyone be a mother except me? Since then, I feel empty every day of my life.”

“If you can’t take care of yourself, how will you be able to care for someone else?” is the question Ruiz was frequently confronted with. Nevertheless, this line of thought distracts from the fact that most governments do shockingly little to provide for disabled people. 

There is still a significant disability employment gap in the UK, for instance, with only 23 per cent of working-age people in the UK being disabled. This key inequality is attributed to a lack of accommodation, few access schemes and prejudice, such as a lack of confidence by employers in the abilities of disabled individuals.

After the procedure, the “little affection” Ruiz had for her parents was completely gone: “I don’t have a conversation like father and daughter. I don’t trust anyone anymore, nor do I want to,” Ruiz said. Her parents insisted on the procedure after she met Antonio, one of her colleagues at the occupational centre in Seville, southern Spain where she works. Ruiz described him as the love of her life and one day while talking about their future, both spoke of how they wanted to have children, so they went to see the Spaniard’s parents to share the news.

However, the woman’s parents didn’t respond with happiness. They insisted on sterilisation with no one explaining the operation or its consequences to Ruiz. Her mother even threatened to stop her from seeing Antonio again and put her in an institution if she refused to go to the hospital.

During the whole ordeal, Ruiz was constantly reminded that there might be a chance she could pass her disability on to her child, perpetuating the harmful, ableist idea that disabled individuals are divergent from the norm and need to be contained or weeded out.

Suddenly, Ruiz’s wish to become a mother became the subject of centuries of racist and ableist ideology that labelled certain people unfit to have children. Planned Parenthood, for example, while today a hallmark of reproductive education and sexual healthcare, originally began its routes in eugenics.

Margaret Sanger, who founded the organisation, was a firm believer in eugenics and it is no coincidence that her quest to popularise the pill intersected with the rise of the eugenics movement in the US. Next to giving (white and abled) women reproductive rights, it also served to control the growth of minority populations and people with disabilities.

It is an uncomfortable truth that progress in the sphere of reproductive technology and greater choices for some individuals has coincided with less for others.

Their stories of forceful sterilisation, and the stress and shame that are associated with it, continue to be shared to this day.

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