A judgment by the high court in Namibia in favor of three women who claimed they had been sterilized without their informed consent confirms the principle that in order for consent to be truly “informed,” it must be freely given and clearly understood.
The judgment passed by the high court in Namibia on Monday 30th July 2012–ruling in favour of three women who claimed they had been sterilized without their informed consent–confirms the principle that in order for consent to be truly “informed,” it must be freely given and clearly understood. In the case in Namibia, the women had Cesarean deliveries to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to their babies. They were sterilized at the same time as they underwent the Cesareans.
Windhoek High Court Judge Elton Hoff was unconvinced that informed consent had been given by the women and said “There should be unhurried counseling in a language that is clearly understood by the patient.” Obtaining consent from women when they were in severe pain or in labour, Judge Elton Hoff ruled, did not constitute informed consent. While Judge Hoff also found that the women had not sufficiently proved that they were targeted for sterilization because they are HIV-positive, the decision still paves the way for legal action by other women who claim they were coerced into sterilization because they are living with HIV.
Forced and coerced sterilization and abortion among HIV-positive women have been reported in many countries across regions. For example, a case was filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in which a woman diagnosed with HIV charged that the government of Chile failed to protect her from being forcibly sterilized at a state hospital immediately after she gave birth. The case is still pending before the IACHR.
The recently released report HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law documented that women claim to have been denied access to HIV and health services unless they agree to abortion or sterilization. Other coercive and discriminatory practices in health care settings include forced HIV testing, breaches of confidentiality and the denial of health care services.
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The Commission reported that “coercive and discriminatory practices in health care settings are rife, including forced HIV testing, breaches of confidentiality and the denial of health care services, as well as forced sterilisations and abortions.” The Global Commission on HIV and the Law is an independent Commission, convened by UNDP on behalf of the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
This important decision affirms the rights of all women to the important standard of informed consent, and points to the specific vulnerability of women and girls living with HIV with regard to their reproductive and sexual health and rights. Congratulations are due to the many individuals and organizations involved – especially the Legal Assistance Centre of Namibia and the Namibia Women’s Health Network for their efforts to ensure access to justice for women and girls living with HIV.
Much work remains to be done to abolish punitive laws and practices related to HIV, such as mandatory HIV-related registration, testing, and forced treatment regimens; to facilitate access to sexual and reproductive health and rights; and stop forced abortion and coerced sterilisation of women and girls. As the Global Commission on HIV and the Law recommends: “countries must prohibit and governments must take measures to stop the practice of forced abortion and coerced sterilisation of HIV-positive women and girls, as well as all other forms of violence against women and girls in health care settings.”
While some long-acting reversible contraceptive methods were used to undermine women of color's reproductive freedom, those methods still hold the promise of reducing unintended pregnancy among those most at risk.
Since long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), including intrauterine devices and hormonal contraceptive implants, are among the most effective means of pregnancy prevention, many family planning and reproductive health providers are increasingly promoting them, especially among low-income populations.
But the promotion of LARCs must come with an acknowledgment of historical discriminatory practices and public policy related to birth control. To improve contraceptive access for low-income women and girls of color—who bear the disproportionate effects of unplanned pregnancy—providers and advocates must work to ensure that the reproductive autonomy of this population is respected now, precisely because it hasn’t been in the past.
For Black women particularly, the reproductive coercion that began during slavery took a different form with the development of modern contraceptive methods. According to Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body, “The movement to expand women’s reproductive options was marked with racismfrom its very inception in the early part of [the 20th] century.” Decades later, government-funded family planning programs encouraged Black women to use birth control; in some cases, Black women were coerced into being sterilized.
In the 1990s, the contraceptive implant Norplant was marketed specifically to low-income women, especially Black adults and teenage girls. After a series of public statements about the benefits of Norplant in reducing pregnancy among this population, policy proposals soon focused on ensuring usage of the contraceptive method. Federal and state governments began paying for Norplant and incentivizing its use among low-income women while budgets for social support programs were cut. Without assistance, Norplant was not an affordable option, with the capsules costing more than $300 and separate, expensive costs for implantation and removal.
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Soon, Norplant was available through the Medicaid program. Some states introduced (ultimately unsuccessful) bills that would give cash rewards to entice low-income women on public assistance into using it; a few, such as Tennessee and Washington state, required that women receiving various forms of public assistance get information about Norplant. After proposing a bill to promote the use of Norplant in his state in 1994, a Connecticut legislator made the comment, “It’s far cheaper to give you money not to have kids than to give you money to have kids.” By that year, as Roberts writes, states had spent $34 million on Norplant-related care, much of it for women on Medicaid. Policymakers thought it was completely legitimate and cost-effective to control the reproduction of low-income women.
However, promoting this method among low-income Black women and adolescents was problematic. Racist, classist ideology dictating that this particular population of women shouldn’t have children became the basis for public policy. Even though coercive practices in reproductive health were later condemned, these practices still went on to shape cultural norms around race and gender, as well as medical practice.
This history has made it difficult to move beyond negative perceptions, and even fear, of LARCs, health care, and the medical establishment among some women of color. And that’s why it’s so important to ensure informed consent when advocating for effective contraceptive methods, with choice always at the center.
But how can policies and health-care facilities promote reproductive autonomy?
Health-care providers must deal head on with the fact that many contemporary women have concerns about LARCs being recommended specifically to low-income women and women of color. And while this is part of the broader effort to make LARCs more affordable and increasingly available to communities that don’t have access to them, mechanisms should be put in place to address this underlying issue. Requiring cultural competency training that includes information on the history of coercive practices affecting women of color could help family planning providers understand this concern for their patients.
Then, providers and health systems must address other barriers that make it difficult for women to access LARCs in particular. LARCs can be expensive in the short term, and complicated billing and reimbursement practices in both public and private insurance confuse women and providers. Also, the full cost associated with LARC usage isn’t always covered by insurance.
But the process shouldn’t end at eliminating barriers. Low-income Black women and teens must receive comprehensive counseling for contraception to ensure informed choice—meaning they should be given information on the full array of methods. This will help them choose the method that best meets their needs, while also promoting reproductive autonomy—not a specific contraceptive method.
Clinical guidelines for contraception must include detailed information on informed consent, and choice and reproductive autonomy should be clearly outlined when family planning providers are trained.
It’s crucial we implement these changes now because recent investments and advocacy are expanding access to LARCs. States are thinking creatively about how to reduce unintended pregnancy and in turn reduce Medicaid costs through use of LARCs. The Colorado Family Planning Initiative has been heralded as one of the most effective in helping women access LARCs. Since 2008, more than 30,000 women in Colorado have chosen LARCs as the result of the program. Provider education, training, and contraceptive counseling have also been increased, and women can access LARCs at reduced costs.
The commitment to LARCs has apparently yielded major returns for Colorado. Between 2009 and 2013, the abortion rate among teenagers older than 15 in Colorado dropped by 42 percent. Additionally, the birth rate for young women eligible for Medicaid dropped—resulting in cost savings of up to an estimated $111 million in Medicaid-covered births. LARCs have been critical to these successes. Public-private partnerships have helped keep the program going since 2015, and states including Delaware and Iowa have followed suit in efforts to experience the same outcomes.
Recognizing that prevention is a key component to any strategy addressing a public health concern, those strategies must be rooted in ensuring access to education and comprehensive counseling so that women and teens can make the informed choices that are best for them. When women and girls are given the tools to empower themselves in decision making, the results are positive—not just for what the government spends or does not spend on social programs, but also for the greater good of all of us.
The history of coercion undermining reproductive freedom among women and girls of color in this country is an ugly one. But this certainly doesn’t have to dictate how we move forward.
In 2000, a Peruvian political refugee referred to by her initials, “I.V.,” went to a Bolivian public hospital to deliver her third child. According to court documents, the doctors decided during the cesarean section that a future pregnancy would be dangerous for I.V. and performed a tubal ligation—for which they claimed they had I.V.’s consent. When I.V. learned that she had been sterilized two days later, she said, she was devastated.
After her complaint against the surgeon who sterilized her was dismissed by Bolivian courts, I.V. brought her case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IA Court), which heard oral arguments earlier this month. In a region where there are widespread reports of forced sterilization, the case is the first time the court will consider whether nonconsensual sterilization is a human rights violation.
The IA Court should hand down its decision in the coming months. A favorable ruling in this case by the IA Court—the highest human rights court in the Americas—could require Bolivia to, among other things, pay reparations to I.V., investigate and possibly punish the doctors who sterilized her, and take steps to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. The decision will also have ramifications across the region, establishing a binding legal precedent for the 25 countries that are party to the American Convention on Human Rights.
I.V. v. Bolivia provides an important opportunity for the IA Court to condemn forced sterilization and to adopt clear standards concerning informed consent. It would also be joining U.N. human rights bodies and the European Court of Human Rights in recognizing that forced sterilization violates fundamental human rights to personal integrity and autonomy, to be free from gender discrimination and violence, to privacy and family life, and, as CUNY Law School’s Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic and Women Enabled International recently argued in our amicus brief to the IA Court, to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or torture.
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Further, the European Court and U.N. experts recognize that possible health risk from a future pregnancy cannot justify nonconsensual sterilization because there are alternative contraceptive methods to prevent pregnancy and women must be given the time and information needed to make an informed choice about sterilization. The IA Court should make similar findings.
Unlike the sterilization of Mexican immigrant women in the United States in the 1970s, recently portrayed in the documentary No Más Bebés, I.V.’s case doesn’t appear to involve a broad governmental policy of sterilizing poor or immigrant women. But it illustrates the all-too-common scenario of medical providers making decisions on behalf of women who are deemed unfit or unable to make their own choices.
Indeed, forced and coerced sterilization is disproportionately perpetrated around the world against women in stigmatized groups, such as women living with HIV, poor women, ethnic or national minorities, or women with disabilities because some health-care providers believe that such women should not have children. Whether driven by animosity against certain women, stereotypes that these women are unfit to become parents, or a paternalistic notion that “doctor knows best,” the end result is the same: Women are permanently robbed of their capacity to have children without their consent.
The parties contest whether I.V. orally consented to sterilization during her c-section. But even if she did so, medical ethical standards and decisions from U.N. human rights bodies and the European Court make clear that consent obtained during labor or immediately preceding or after delivery cannot be valid because the circumstances surrounding delivery—due to pain, anesthesia, or other factors—are inherently inconsistent with voluntary patient choice.
I.V. delivered at a public hospital that predominantly treats indigent women, many of whom are indigenous or migrants. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—which effectively acts as a court of first instance for the IA Court—considered the case before it went to the IA Court and noted the special vulnerability of migrant women seeking health care in Bolivia, given their reliance on public services and the lack of care options. It found that I.V.’s medical team was influenced by “gender stereotypes on the inability of women to make autonomous” reproductive decisions.It further concluded thatthe decision to sterilize I.V. without proper consent reflected notions that the medical staff was “empowered to take better medical decisions than the woman concerned regarding control over reproduction.”
Sixteen years after her sterilization, I.V. still acutely feels the emotional and psychological toll of having been sterilized. Because of the severity of physical and mental harms that forced sterilization imposes upon women, the Inter-American Court should join the European Court of Human Rights and U.N. human rights experts in recognizing that forced sterilization constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and may constitute torture.
In addition to condemning forced sterilization, the IA Court should recognize the multiple human rights violations I.V. suffered. The Inter-American human rights system protects women from gender-based discrimination and violence and violations of the right to personal integrity, information, privacy, and family life, all of which are at issue in this case.