Commentary: Czech Republic, Slovakia must compensate the victims of forced sterilization while they are still alive
Beginning in the late 1960s and continuing until at least 2007, women in the former Czechoslovakia and its successor states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have been sterilized without their free and informed consent. This is done through an operation called “tubal ligation” in which a woman’s Fallopian tubes are blocked so that eggs no longer flow from the ovaries to the uterus. When correctly performed, the operation irreversibly, permanently renders a woman incapable of conceiving as a result of sexual intercourse. It is a purely contraceptive, elective procedure that cannot be “prescribed” as a remedy or a treatment, and it is not in and of itself a “life-saving” measure.
The forcibly sterilized women were misled by doctors and social workers to believe this surgery was in fact reversible. They were frequently coerced into undergoing it by social workers communicating either positive or negative incentives to them, a fact that renders the surgeries illegal. They were also sterilized during Cesarean section deliveries; in those cases, asking for their consent to the sterilization seems to have been an afterthought as far as medical personnel were concerned. The women were either asked to consent to sterilization during labor, or they were never asked to give their consent at all. They were also misinformed after giving birth that not just the Cesarean delivery, but the sterilization itself had been “life-saving”. Some were also sterilized without ever being informed of the fact and did not learn why they were unable to conceive until years later.
This malpractice has not just happened in Czechoslovakia and its successor states, but in Bangladesh, Canada, China, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, India, Japan, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Peru, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States of America (including the territory of Puerto Rico) and Uzbekistan (where it continues today). The motivation for treating these women as if they were stray dogs or cats to be neutered varies from country to country, but is best described as a combination of ableism, racism, and stigmatization of women who are impoverished or have low social status.
Because of this widespread abuse, in May 2014,the World Health Organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Women, UNAIDS, the United Nations Development Program, the United Nations Population Fund, and UNICEF issued a joint statement entitled “Eliminating forced, coercive and otherwise involuntary sterilization - an interagency statement”. Describing these forced sterilizations as an outcome of coercive population control policies targeting marginalized groups, the statement declares that women’s autonomy in making decisions about contraception or gynecological and obstetric care must be fully respected by the medical and other helping professions.
In the Czechoslovak and the Czech and Slovak contexts, women have been forcibly sterilized continuously over the course of 40 years; it is reasonable to assume thousands have been affected. Most have probably passed away by now without ever being compensated. Unlike countries such as Sweden, the Czech Republic has not responded to this information proactively; thorough investigations of this practice have never been undertaken by the state; an official state partner for communication with the victims has never been designated; and criminal prosecutions have not been pursued even in cases where the law has been grossly violated.
Human rights activists who observed the targeting of Romani women for sterilization in Czechoslovakia noted its eugenic nature (i.e., the belief that Romani women should be prevented from reproducing because it was assumed their children would be disabled somehow) as well as that the official actions taken were after-the-fact attempts to put a legalized face on a practice that was already underway. The Czech Socialist Republic’s Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, for example, adopted an internal regulation in 1973 to offer one-time “grants” to persons undergoing tubal ligation.
In addition to being coerced by social workers into undergoing this surgery, women were also being sterilized without their free and informed choice and consent during the delivery of other gynecological and obstetrical services. Elena Gorolová, the Romani woman who has been fighting for compensation for the last 15 years and who was named a 2018 Woman of the Year by the BBC for her efforts, was forcibly sterilized in 1990 during a second Cesarean delivery in exactly this way.
The Public Defender of Rights undertook an investigation into this issue in 2005, on the basis of which he recommended compensation. While the report caused a brief stir, it would be years before either the Government or Parliament took any decisions based on its recommendations. Human rights observers used the 2005 report to repeatedly ask the international human rights community to call on the Czech state to compensate the victims as a matter of urgency, calls that have been repeated for more than 15 years now, still to no avail. The UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the UN Human Rights Committee, the Universal Periodic Review process, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, the UN Committee against Torture and the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have all called on the Czech state repeatedly to compensate the victims as matter of priority and urgency.
In 2008, a three-year statute of limitations on eligibility for monetary compensation in cases involving violations of personality rights was adopted by the Czech judiciary. This made it impossible for the vast majority of forced sterilization victims to seek compensation through the courts. So far the only persons illegally sterilized on Czech territory to have been compensated are those who managed to sue either within the statute of limitations or who sued before the 2008 restrictions were imposed.
In 2009, the caretaker Government of Prime Minister Fischer expressed regret for this malpractice without acknowledging the systemic nature of the abuse. While the statement was considered by the Human Rights Minister to be a prelude to developing a compensation scheme, one has yet to be seriously developed. A general best-practice recommendation with respect to ensuring free and informed consent to contraceptive sterilization is that there should be a waiting period between the time somebody requests sterilization and the time the operation is irreversibly performed. Despite this recommendation being made by the Public Defender of Rights in 2005, legislation instituting a waiting period was not adopted until 2012.
In 2015, Czech Human Rights Minister Dienstbier proposed a compensation mechanism for these victims. The Government voted against his proposal, insisting in its follow-up communications with the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe that the victims should sue for compensation in court and ask the court to waive the statute of limitations restrictions on compensation in the interest of “good morals” (never mind that this approach has already failed in at least once instance). Not only did the Government describe this option as “adequate redress”, they also claimed the women had always had the option of suing - even prior to 1990. That claim is so remarkable as to be ahistorical.
In 2018, both non-Romani and Romani women who have been forcibly sterilized, as well as former Human Rights Commissioner Monika Šimunková, met with the Czech Prime Minister to ask yet again for a compensation mechanism to be adopted. The PM tasked the Justice Minister with handling this and also encouraged the victims to try to find allies in Parliament to adopt such legislation. The victims have few domestic supporters and no financial resources of their own for this effort.
First published in Czech translation in Romano voďi.
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