As a young feminist coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, I became well aware of the horrors of the sterilization abuse of women. I grew to understand that certain classes and races of women are used as tools of colonialism and the patriarchy. Sterilization abuses, also known as compulsory or coercive sterilization, are programs that reflect government policies which attempt to force, or coerce, specific groups of people to undergo permanent surgical sterilization manipulative information and threats.
In the first part of the 20th century, numerous such programs were instituted in many countries and were usually a part of eugenics programs intended to prevent the reproduction of members of the population considered to be racially impure and unclean, physically and mentally unfit, and racially and ethnically inferior. Eugenics is a social philosophy which, historically, has been used as justification for coercive state-sponsored discrimination and human rights violations, such as the forced sterilization of persons who are perceived to have "genetic defects," the killing of the institutionalized, and in some cases, outright genocide of races perceived as "dirty, inferior, or undesirable to the rest of society."
In recent U.S. history, the sterilization abuse of Puerto Rican, Native American, and Africa-American women is well-documented. Sterilization as performed coercively on these racial and ethnic groups is a tool of population control, with the standard eugenic foundation of punitive attitudes, societal prejudices, and a class-based ideology with the ultimate goal of diminishing the population of these groups. The message is clear: middle and upper class white women should bear children and single, low-income women—especially women of color—and immigrant women should limit their child-bearing. This colonial and patriarchal legacy of controlling women's sexuality and reproduction is further demonstrated by denying these women access to alternative methods of reversible contraception. The practice of a racist and sexist eugenics "genetically inferior" framework rings clearly with these shocking numbers: as of 1982, 15% of white women had been sterilized in the United States, as compared with 24% of African-American women, 35% of Puerto Rican women, and 42% of Native American women. Much has changed to bring the nature and causes of these disparities to light and to ensure state and federal polices and practices to prevent these abuses. But harassment, threats, trickery, and lack of access to true informed consent that lead to coercive sterilizations are still known to occur in the United States.
The contemporary lens of sterilization abuse can now be focused in Europe in the case of Roma women. The Roma people, usually estimated at 12 million, of Western Europe, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Central Europe, as well as the United States and Canada, have also been known as Gypsies and Romani. The historic persecution and discrimination against this ethnic group is rampant. Sound familiar? Roma women have been found to have low life expectancies and in 1989, infant mortality among the Roma of Bulgaria was six times the national average. Now, Roma women are letting the world know of the coercive sterilizations that they experienced during the last three decades in Central Europe.
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From the 1970s until 1990, the Czechoslovak government sterilized Roma women as part of polices aimed at reducing the "high and unhealthy birth rate of Roma women and to curb the birth of undesirables." The practice supposedly "officially" ended in 1990 with the collapse of communist Czechoslovakia. But research during 2003 and 2004 by the European Roma Rights Centre indicated that Roma women were still at great risk.
Alarming reports continue to be unearthed that Roma women are still being pressured into sterilizations, often while still under anesthetic from childbirth, with offers of financial incentives, and/or by assuring them that the procedure could be reversed. More than 100 Roma women in Slovakia claim that when they were pregnant, they were duped into signing a consent form for sterilization by being told they were being fitted for an IUD or giving consent for a Caesarean section. Roma society values large families and infertility is seen as shameful for both men and women; many couples and families disintegrated as a result.
The coercive sterilization of Roma women was the subject of a U.S. commission hearing in August of 2006.The U.S. Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) contrasted the ways the two Central European countries have dealt with one of the darkest legacies of the Communist era that did not completely end with the fall of Communism. The Czech public defender of rights has called for a true accountability and change in Czech medical culture and the Czech government legal structure and is also recommending compensation to victims. The Slovak government, on the other hand, initially denied the existence of sterilization abuse, but finally acknowledged it in a deeply flawed manner by declaring that the sterilizations in question were eventually deemed as "merely procedural and individual shortcomings."
Breaking through their culture of shame and silence, Roma women now speak out and wait. They have united to form a victim advocacy group "Women Harmed by Sterilization." Like their sisters of color in the United States, they talk of lack of informed consent, minimal understanding of the terminology of sterilization, of lies and manipulative information, threatening and coercive treatment, and lack of information on reversible contraception. Ultimately, they wait for official recognition and compensation for the racist and sexist eugenics-fueled human rights violations, suffering, and deceit that far too many of them suffered at the hands of patriarchy.
This takes me back to the suffering caused by the forced sterilization in the United States that inspired me to feminist activism many years ago. When will this abuse finally end for all women?