Forced sterilization: Big media stories versus the big picture

By — September 4, 2012

Sweden. California. Peru. All three make lovely vacation spots, sure, but they share something more sinister, too: a state-sponsored violence so furtive, even victims don’t always know it’s taking place. Add to that list Norway, Finland, Kenya, Venezuela, and 31 more U.S. states, and you begin to see the scope of forced sterilization.

The subject is not only geographically broad—it also reaches back more than a century in the U.S. at least, to when states began passing sterilization laws. Yet just recently, involuntary sterilization around the world has gotten significant press. Outlets including CNN, PBS, and the BBC have run stories this year on forced sterilization as well as the history of eugenics—a movement meant to “improve” the genetic pool and that, in its efforts, not-so-subtly destroyed the bodies and lives of men and women of various races, ethnicities, and developmental disabilities. These stories describe policies that once enforced the sterilization of “defective” West Coast girls and boys in the U.S. and steps in a North Carolina movement to compensate survivors forcibly sterilized from 1929 to 1974. In July, CNN wrote about three women in Namibia who had been sterilized against their will because they were HIV positive. An L.A. Times piece from May tells of a Sri Lankan–born Washington State woman whose uterus was removed without her consent in 1972; The Lancet reported in June on the sterilization still happening in Uzbekistan.

A public discourse on the matter is refreshing, especially when there are places, like Uzbekistan and Kenya, where the abuse didn’t happen in the past, but is instead going on today. Some women are being coerced into the procedure by doctors who threaten to take away their anti-retroviral medicines if they don’t acquiesce (as in Kenya); others are not told that anything is happening to them and find out when it's too late. They go to hospitals for routine surgeries or Caesarian sections and leave with their reproductive systems destroyed.

LGBT protesters march in Sweden—one of the countries that currently forces sterilization on trans persons. (Agus Munoraharjo)

Many articles point to a reason behind a particular sterilization effort. Depending on the location and era, a program may be grounded in racism, sexism, xenophobia, classism, or fear of HIV. As the London daily The Independent reports, an aggressive policy in China is aimed at population control. And as Salon and Mother Jones illustrate, sterilization’s use in Europe stems from bigotry against the transgender community—an unwillingness to accept a transitioned person’s reproductive rights. Although some might balk at the notion that Sweden, a platonic ideal of progressive society to many, has it out for the trans community, Mother Jones brings us back to reality: Sterilization laws against trans folks exist in 16 other European countries as well.

While it’s heartening to read news stories on these surprising injustices and find acknowledgement that they occur worldwide—in the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa, and even in Sweden—there’s still something missing. In most of the news stories on forced sterilization, the word “violence” never appears.

At WMC’s Women Under Siege, we’ve reported on sterilization in both the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust. In the context of war, it’s clearer that what’s happening is a form of sexualized violence. Women are raped, forced to bear children of their attackers; women and men are also prevented from reproducing. These are tools of genocide. But outside the context of war, mainstream outlets report on sterilization more clinically. There’s emotion, yes, in some stories of survivors, but the sense that this is violence—sexualized violence—is often absent.  

“They told him to lie down on an operating table, and then the needle came out,” is how CNN describes the case of a man who was sterilized in California as a child 60 years ago.  

“Witnesses said that they were being held in cramped, damp conditions, including one group of 200 which had been herded into a hundred-square-meter room,” The Independent reports about a group of senior citizens rounded up in China as a means of intimidating the seniors’ children into sterilization. The subjects are not those being sterilized, however, but the parents of those who refuse to submit to the policy and whose mothers and fathers were taken hostage by local authorities. That story does show that something terrible is afoot, but makes no mention of the brutality of sterilization itself.

In CNN’s story about Namibian sterilization, the journalist quotes a lawyer who says the women are “victims of a broken health system.” True, but the piece overall makes a bit of an understatement considering that these women have been brutally, surgically violated.

Perhaps since sterilization is not always painful and is a medical term we associate with elective surgery, it’s easy to think of it as less horrifying than, say, rape. The U.N., however, is extremely clear. “A severe violation of women’s reproductive rights,” states a 1999 report with “violence against women” in its title, “forced sterilization is a method of medical control of a woman’s fertility without the consent of a woman. Essentially involving the battery of a woman—violating her physical integrity and security—forced sterilization constitutes violence against women.”

The report goes on to explain that while “forced sterilization is a form of violence within the context of reproductive health, so is the restriction on and prohibition of access to voluntary contraception.Efforts to restrain women from using contraception or from having an abortion, it says, “constitute violence against women by subjecting women to excessive pregnancies and childbearing against their will, resulting in increased and preventable risks of maternal mortality and morbidity.” Indeed, as our analysis of how rape is used as a tool of war in the Holocaust points out, preventing pregnancy and forcing pregnancy can both be forms of abuse. On a mass scale, each can be leveraged for ethnic, political, and social cleansing.

Although the United Nations and some advocacy groups are very straightforward on the matter (the Open Society Foundations’ public health program points out that forced and coerced sterilization “should be treated like any other form of torture”), news reports are a step or two behind. It’s good to see a flurry of journalists report on mass, forced sterilization, holding state and national governments accountable. It’s also no small matter that these stories discuss victims across the entire gender spectrum.  

Just as important, however, is that reporters frame these events properly. Whether in the course of a visible war or as part of a subtler one, forced sterilizations of men, women, and trans persons aren’t just unethical procedures. They’re vicious sexual attacks.