Forced sterilisation of disabled people

There are a number of reasons for sterilisation including not wanting (more) children, issues with menstruation and society not wanting you to reproduce.

As such, this post will have inevitable crossovers with the post on disability and menstruation, particularly as methods of stopping periods lead to (possibly temporary) inability to have children and sterilisation can lead to stopping periods.  Additionally the argument that a person can’t cope with periods can be used as a way of arguing for sterilisation.

The History of Sterilisation

The history of sterilisation is one intertwined with race, class, disability and Nazism.  So it’s probably not surprising that people don’t talk about it much.  I’d also like to add that I’m focusing on disability here.

I feel that the history of sterilisation is an important part of the discussion.  You may not be aware for example, that forced sterilisation of disabled people predates Hitler.

The existence of disabled people was increasingly seen in the UK and USA as a threat to social progress.  Darwin himself wrote in his 1871 treatise, The Descent of Man, “We civilised men…. do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick.. .Thus the weak members of society propagate their kind.”

New Statesman

In the 1880s, Francis Galton was wondering if it would be possible to get rid of the “undesirables”.  He went on to argue that reproduction by “feeble minded” people should be stopped.  Thus providing an excellent springboard for the idea of forced sterilisation.  Unfortunately this wasn’t limited to the view of one man sitting in a room pondering, it was to become a popular idea with a range of people across the political spectrum.  We’re not just talking far right Nazis here.  Left wing politicians were also believers in this approach.

In 1907, The Eugenics Education Society, it’s aims were to “bring all matters pertaining to human parenthood under the domination of eugenic ideals” and to “effect improvement of the race through knowledge of the laws of heredity.”  In 1931 they drafted a bill for the compulsory sterilisation of “mental defectives”.  Although the bill failed, it was resubmitted and helped raise awareness for their cause.  Another bill for forced sterilisation of certain kinds of “mental patients” was proposed in 1931.  Labour MP Archibald Church proposed the bill, claiming it was necessary to stop the reproduction of those “who are in every way a burden to their parents, a misery to themselves and in my opinion a menace to the social life of the community”.  Again, this wasn’t passed but coerced sterilisations occurred instead.  Because it never become law in the UK, it is impossible to know how many forced and coerced sterilisations have taken place here.

In 1934, The Eugenics Education Society would recommend legislation to ensure the ‘voluntary’ sterilisation of ‘mentally defective women’.  A contradictory reccomendation if ever there was one…

The movement towards sterilisation and eugenics wasn’t just happening in the UK and Germany.  It was a worldwide phenomena and the first International Eugenics Conference was held in London in 1912.  Attendees included Winston Churchill.

At this time, over in America, disabled people were refused entry to the US on the grounds that they would weaken the characteristics of existing citizens.

President Theodore Roosevelt could not have been more blunt: “I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding; and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilised and feeble-minded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them”

New Statesman

Laws were introduced to stop people with certain disabilities from having children, the first such law being in Indiana in 1907.  From that point onwards in America, people with disabilities were forcibly sterilised, often without being told what was happening.  In Virginia, the law was in place between 1924 and 1979 with more than 7,000 people being recorded as sterilised.  I suspect the actual figures were much higher and included people outside the scope of the law.

Indeed, reasons given for sterilisation in North Carolina include “Pauper. Needs close supervision. Hypersexuality,” and “She wears men’s clothing all time” (at the time this was probably meant to be read as “possible lesbian”).

By 1938, 33 American states permitted the forced sterilisation of women with learning disabilities and 29 American states had passed compulsory sterilisation laws covering people who were thought to have genetic conditions. Laws in America also restricted the right of certain disabled people to marry. More than 36,000 Americans underwent compulsory sterilisation before this legislation was eventually repealed in the 1940s.

America was not the only country in the Western world to introduce compulsory sterilisation of disabled people. Sweden sterilised 60,000 disabled women from 1935 until as late as 1976. Thousands of children labelled as having learning difficulties were sent off to live in “Institutes for Misled and Morally Neglected Children” where they were required to undergo “treatment”.

New Statesman

Under these laws, I would have been sterilised because I have a genetic condition. As much as I’m clear I’m not going to have children that is my decision and I would be devastated if my autonomy was stolen from me in that way.

The introduction of these laws, in America as well as European countries, meant that after the Second World War, disabled people who had been forcibly sterilised were not considered to have been the victims of war crimes (and hence not eligible for compensation).  The reason being that other countries had similar laws to the German law which allowed forced sterilisation and indeed, other countries had had those laws before Germany.

Present Day

Forced and coerced sterilisation still happens today, even though it is clearly stated by the UN that forced sterilisation is violence.  Whilst it seems to disproportionately affect disabled women, they aren’t the only victims:

The Issue of Consent

There has, and continues to be, an emphasis on sterilising people with mental illness or learning disabilities.  Perhaps, as they are often the most vulnerable, they are also the easiest to coerce or their very disability provides an excuse – “she wouldn’t understand, she wouldn’t be able to cope…”.  And yes, there will be some people who do have difficulty understanding menstruation and sex but they could also have trouble understanding what has been done to them and why they can’t be parents.

Often in situations where people can’t easily give consent, it’s their parents who provide it.  Parents who have their own, busy lives, their own values, their own prejudices, their own desire to keep their child a child.  As far as I know, most parents struggle with their children growing up and menstruating can be part of that.  If you can stop it, can you also stop your child from becoming an adult? And if so, who is going to stop you?

Another strong argument made is there is no appropriate family planning support available.  This argument is an easy one to counter – why should we forcibly sterilise people when we can increase access to support?!  I suspect a lack of support is one reason why the choice to sterilise is made by parents – explaining to someone who’s got a learning difficult about periods etc can take time and patience and different ways of explaining and parents may not have the knowledge, resources or the time. Indeed, a 1993 study by Roy et al found that alternative contraception as a way of dealing with menstruation had not been explored by families requesting sterilisation.  Admittedly this is an old study and information has become much more widely available with the internet but I suspect that often parents are not exploring all the options.  (Note, I’ve not been able to access the study so I’m getting the info second hand).  McCarthey in 2009 found similar situations where the decision to get sterilised was made in light of exaggerated claims about the consequences of pregnancy and a withholding of information around alternative menstruation control.

Sometimes, as a parent, it comes down to firefighting and you have to deal with other things first, leaving no time for a potentially long process towards understanding menstruation and sex. Because of this, accessible information is a must along with specially trained sexual health workers.

The Consequences

And what are the consequences of sterilising children?  I’ve already written a lot so I’m not going to add any detail but children’s bodies are growing and changing and sterilisation is going to impact that.  And yet if you want to prevent someone from starting their periods, as is often argued as the reason behind it, you need to do that to an 8-12 year old girl.

In addition to physical effects of sterilisation, forced and coerced sterilisation also has psychological effects including extreme trauma, depression and grief. It also further “others” those of us with disabilities who no longer have the option of reproducing (I know adoption etc is available but that’s another area where disability works against you…).

One issue that’s come up a lot in my reading is that sterilisation is protecting people from unwanted children as a result of rape.  The idea being that if the risk of pregnancy is taken away, then these vulnerable people can then be released from institutions and allowed to participate in society.  None of this acknowledges that the risk of rape remains and that instead of locking people up or taking away their fertility we should be dealing with the abusers.  It also suggests that rape is ok provided there isn’t a baby as a result…

Alongside this is the issue of consensual sex where the people involved are deemed unfit to raise a child.  Removing the risk of pregnancy is somehow enough to allow people to live “out” in society… In some instances, people were institutionalised in order to convince them to be sterilised and in others, discharge from institutions on the condition that the person would be sterilised first. (Silence is Roaring, PDF).

Finally… 

I’d just like to add, to further complicate, or demonstrate the complexity of the issue, that I would actually like to be sterilised. As per a previous post, I struggle a lot with my period and I know I, not going to have children, partly because of my Vaginismus and partly because i have chosen not to pass on my genetic condition. Additionally, I can’t care for myself, I can’t pick up a child, I can’t do so many things related to looking after a child that I have chosen not to have children.

But the key word here is chosen. I have considered my options, I’ve made an informed decision. My choice.

Side note: despite, or perhaps because of, the history and ongoing practice of forced sterilisation, I’m actually struggling to get any medical professional to understand where I’m coming from and to agree to go ahead with the process. Perhaps because unless I’m in my wheelchair I don’t always look disabled?

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