A new report highlights the scandal of the forced sterilisation of women in Europe

Between 2010 and 2013, Spanish judges decided that dozens and dozens of women shouldn’t ever have children. They ordered the women to undergo an irreversible sterilisation procedure, arguing it was in their best interests.

Little is known about these roughly 400 women, and it’s not clear whether their health was in danger or whether they suffered life-threatening, hereditary diseases. Their only crime, it appears, was that they had a disability.

The Spanish cases together with similar incidents in Croatia, the United Kingdom and France were highlighted in a shocking new report which has thrown light on the forced sterilisation of women and girls with disabilities in Europe for the first time.

And these are just the cases we know about. Far more often, forced sterilisation procedures don’t leave traces in official records because doctors typically go it alone, performing sterilisations on women with no due process.

No-one is collecting figures or otherwise investigating the scope of this issue, says An-Sofie Leenknecht from the European Disability Forum (EDF), which produced the recent report together with the CERMI Women’s Foundation in Spain. But this is happening in Europe today, she says. “Our evidence is the testimonies that we receive from women with disabilities through our member organisations,” Leenknecht says.

“The fact that women with disabilities are still having to undergo this is incredibly surprising, even for those who work around disabilities day in, day out.”

She is part of an unofficial coalition of disability rights and feminist activists, human rights organisations and the odd lawmaker who have been gathering testimonies, organising parliamentary hearings and releasing documentation in recent years to take these ongoing human rights abuses out of the shadows and into the limelight.

Forced sterilisations occur when a woman undergoes a surgical procedure – which involves blocking or sealing her fallopian tubes – without knowing what it is, without consenting to it or without authorising it. Under international human rights standards, it constitutes a violation of the human right to be free from torture and other cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment or punishment, while the Istanbul Convention, the first binding instrument in Europe aimed at preventing and combating violence against women, views it as a crime against women. So why is this still happening?

Laura Albu is an executive committee member of the European Women’s Lobby from Romania. She says that a number of reasons are used to justify the procedure across the continent depending on a woman’s particular disability. Sometimes, it’s cultural anxieties that a woman will pass on her disability to any future children, other times it is the result of concerns that the woman is not fit to be a parent, she says. Sometimes, it’s religious views that view it as a sin for women with disabilities to have children.

What unites the various incidents that have surfaced in recent years is the person calling the shots, Albu says. “Generally, it’s not the family who asks for this; it’s medical professionals who make decisions purely based on prejudices,” she says, pointing out that the surgical intervention is frequently performed together with other medical procedures or check-ups.

Such medical professionals are not observing local laws or medical guidelines, Albu says. “These are the personal ideas of doctors,” who think that sterilisation is in the interest of the woman, her health, her family or society at large, Albu says. “They decide and they take God’s role in this particular aspect,” she says, pointing out that educating medical professionals is a key challenge ahead to root out the practice.

The threat of gender-based violence

There are 46 million women and girls with disabilities in Europe. As a group, they are two to five times more likely to be victims of violence than non-disabled women, according to figures from the EDF. Disability rights activists say women and girls with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities are particularly at risk of being forced to undergo sterilisation.

Another marginalised group that has been particularly vulnerable to the practice are Roma women. This is for obvious reasons, says Soraya Post, a Swedish lawmaker for the Feminist Initiative. “Both Roma women and women with disabilities are not viewed as full citizens; they’re looked at as second-class citizens,” she says. Roma are the largest ethnic minority in the European Union and have long faced high levels of exclusion and discrimination.

The issue is deeply personal for Post, a life-long Roma activist and the first lawmaker elected to the European Parliament on a feminist ticket. When she was 22 and seven months into her third pregnancy, Post’s mother, a Roma woman, was forced to undergo an abortion and a sterilisation procedure – events that haunted her family their entire lives. Her mother never ceased to worry over what happened to the baby, her father saw his wish of having a big family crushed, while she and her brother never got to know the person their baby brother could have become.

“I’m alone today. I have no father, no mother and my younger brother died. I would have loved to have another brother. And I would have had one if the government hadn’t decided to end his life,” Post tells Equal Times. “It was such a humiliation and a breach of our human rights and dignity,” to make her mother undergo a sterilisation and abortion solely because of her ethnicity.

For Post, curbing the rise of far-right parties in Europe is key to preventing the forced sterilisation of vulnerable groups in the future.

“These parties are anti-feminist, racist, fascist and they don’t look at Romas or people with disabilities as full citizens of the European Union,” she says.

Post also urges EU member states to walk the walk and uphold the many international conventions and treaties they’ve adopted under which forced sterilisations constitute human rights violations.

Activists say that the issue also ties in with the broader difficulties women with disabilities face when it comes to exploring their sexuality, having sexual relationships, accessing contraception and having children.

“We’re seen as asexual; we’re seen as not having the ability, the right or the need to explore that side of our life. We’re seen as people that should be lonely, isolated and uninvolved,” says Lucy Watts MBE, 24, a UK-based disability rights activist who has a rare neuromuscular disease.

Time to change legislation?

The issue of forced sterilisation is also intricately tied to a legal issue that disability rights activists have banged the drum about for years. Under the laws of many European countries, people with intellectual disabilities and mental health problems who show an inability to “manage their affairs” can be stripped of their legal capacity. This means that their power to take legally valid decisions and to enter into contractual relations is taken away from them – so they can for instance no longer sign a rental agreement, cast a vote or even get married – and given to someone else. This legal guardian can be a parent but it can also be someone much further removed from the person who is responsible for 50 other individuals, explains Leenknecht.

To prevent forced sterilisations of women with disabilities, we need to change guardianship laws that deprive people of their legal capacities, says Leenknecht, describing this as a daily practice in most EU countries.

“The legislation needs to be changed so that people with a disability always retain their legal capacity, no matter the situation, but with support, of course, offered depending on the situation,” she says.

This is ultimately about who gets to choose what happens to them, says Albu, noting that fundamental freedoms are at stake. “If I decide what’s best for you, that’s not a democratic and free society,” she says, pointing out that women with disabilities need to be able to make their own reproductive choices – no-one should make those choices for them.

All too often, Watts adds, decisions are made for people with disabilities on the grounds that they know what’s best for them – much like the Spanish judges did for those dozens of women. This is wrong, Watts says. “You don’t live my life; you don’t know how fulfilling it is and what a great life I have. Actually, you don’t know what I’m capable of, who I am and what I stand for,” she says. “So why should you dictate to someone like me what my best interests are when you don’t know me? Why should I be forcibly sterilised when I know what my best interests are?”