Some European countries sterilize disabled people without their consent

According to a report by The New York Times on November 25, many people with disabilities are being sterilized without their consent. According to Sarah Hurtes, who reports from across Europe and spent over a month in Iceland working on the investigation: “Forced sterilization, with its history of racism and eugenics, is banned under multiple international treaties. Thirty-seven European nations and the European Union have ratified the Istanbul Convention, which declares, without exception, that nonconsensual sterilization is a human rights violation. But a New York Times investigation found over a third of those countries have made exceptions, often for people that the government deems too disabled to consent. Some countries have banned the practice but not actually criminalized it.”  

Most of those who are sterilized without consent are women, and doctors who spoke to Hurtes said that they believe the practice is rare—but that is hard to determine due to unreliable records. Catalina Devandas Aguilar, a former United Nations special rapporteur for disability rights, observed that families or care institutions often find sterilization convenient and claim that it is in the disabled person’s best interest. Hurtes cites one example of a mother who signed off on a hysterectomy for her cognitively impaired 20-year-old due to periods that could last up to six weeks; Iceland’s law “only covers tubal ligation.” Hurtes cites other examples, as well, and Hurtes reports that there are instances of parents and doctors pressuring disabled women to consent.  

In France, it is permitted to sterilize “people with severe mental disabilities under certain circumstances” although it happens rarely. In Belgium, it is “generally illegal” but still takes place “if parents request it and doctors, after consulting with hospital psychologists, deem it in a woman’s best interest.” There are undeniably difficult situations in which parents genuinely do feel that sterilization is in the best interests of their disabled child, but Katrin Langensiepen, a German politician who is “visually disabled,” is advocating for a “strict Europewide ban on nonconsensual sterilization,” noting that most eugenics practices were defended on the basis that they were in the best interests of the disabled people they targeted. Many, like Langensiepen, question whether disabled people can give consent at all. 


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