The Forced Sterilisation of Disabled Women in Australia

In 2013, a slew of articles was published regarding the sterilisation of disabled women in Australia, but recently this issue has dropped from the headlines despite having not been resolved. Disabled women, often under the age of 18, are recommended for permanent sterilisation by means of hysterectomy. There are various reasons proposed by those supporting this method to justify its use, however it is highly contested because these hysterectomies are carried out without the permission, and often knowledge, of the disabled woman, thus removing critical rights.

The forced sterilisation of disabled people has historical precedent. Countries such as Nazi Germany and the United States carried out policies during the 20th Century which led to more than 60,000 people being sterilised by 1960. The actual number of sterilisations in Australia is unclear; the approximate number was high enough to gain the attention and concern of the United Nations which wrote a report, the Conventions on the Rights of the Child, in 2012 showing unease at the continuation of the practice and proposing a ban for all non-essential surgeries. The lack of accuracy over the figures is a cause for concern because this is such a critical subject, the removal of rights from vulnerable women.

Authorities in Australia have managed and policed this area by making it legally necessary to hold a court or tribunal before sterilisation may be carried out, unless it is carried out as a by-product or part of medically necessary surgery. Permission is then only given for forced sterilisations if it is believed to be in the girl’s best interest and if all other options have been exhausted. This came about as a result of Marion’s case; when courts and families argued over who had the authority to authorise an operation. In the end, it held that only the courts could authorise such an operation. This is an attempt to mitigate unnecessary surgery without proper justification.

There are, however, documented ways to circumvent this, which has to be combated when there is so much at stake. As the Disability Commissioner Graeme Innes said, circumventing control over sterilisation is achieved “Either by a different Medicare number being used, by a person not being recorded by the health system as a person with a disability, or by people going overseas,”. The Australian government has been accused of not doing enough to protect disabled women, as the number of those attempting to circumvent the controls is on the rise.

One reason proponents of sterilisation have put forward their support for the act is that it will prevent sexual abuse. However this argument is inherently flawed because a uterus is not needed for sexual abuse to occur, it simply removes the evidence for certain types of sexual abuse. Therefore, rather than helping to prevent abuse, sterilisation enables abuse to continue by removing the safeguard of physical evidence.

Another reason supposedly supporting sterilisation is that it is convenient for those involved; it avoids the stress and inconvenience of menstruation. However, it must be considered that menstruation could cause mental stress to the disabled woman in question, which is a serious problem. But those who object to sterilisation tackle this issue by addressing the age of those who undergo the procedure. It often happens to girls who have not yet reached puberty and thus menstruated. How do their carers know that they will become distressed, and more importantly, how do they know that the disabled woman will not cope with menstruation. There are other methods which can be used to manage menstruation and fertility which do not involve surgery; it has been proven that the same methods of management can be used on both disabled and non-disabled women. There are also suggestions that hysterectomies to avoid menstruation would not occur as often if there was an appropriate support system in place, a suggestion which should be considered by the Australian government.

Another justification is that disabled people will not be able to cope with the demands of parenthood, and thus it would be better for the potential children and the disabled woman to sterilise the woman and thus avoid the issue. However, the central issue here is that the right to family life is removed without the woman’s consent, therefore removing any possibility of children regardless of the woman’s opinion or parental ability. There is evidence to show that disabled women parent just as ably as non-disabled women, and this justification is based on societal opinions of what is needed to parent well.

The unknowns make forced sterilisation morally questionable because the surgery removes rights from the disabled person against their will. It removes the right to a family life, it removes the right to sanctity of body and the right to choose. It is the lack of choice which is so critical because it suggests that a person has no claim over their body as a result of being disabled. Serious questions must be raised as rights should not be removed from a human being, regardless of their mental or physical status.

There are those who are actively campaigning against forced sterilisation, such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA). WWDA do not oppose sterilisations, just sterilisations of women under the age of 18, and sterilisations of adults without their knowledge or consent unless it is medically critical. The HRC, like the WWDA is pushing for the criminalisation of forced sterilisation, except in medically critical circumstances. The WWDA conducted a report, 2004, which addressed disabled women who had gone through this process, documented the mental and physical effects, and gave recommendations for further action. There are also many other reports on this subject which support the recommendations, as well as an inquiry by the Australian Senate. One of the suggestions is that the recording of all child sterilizations should happen in the same way in each Australian district. There are serious concerns over why it has taken until now for this to be implemented. The UN Special Rapporteur on torture has also stated that forced sterilization of disabled women may constitute torture, or ill treatment. This suggests that Australia and other countries which do the same will face pressure to curb or reform the practice in line with guidelines.

Overall there is a serious issue when considering the forced sterilisation of women in Australia. Women are being deprived of their rights, often before the age of 18. There are documented cases when women have been forced by their parents or legal guardians to have the operation even when they have expressed opposition to sterilization. It is clear that more stringent controls must be put in place to protect the rights of the disabled people and tighten up the regulations determining when sterilisation should be authorised. It is likely that changes will be implemented in the near future as a result of the investigations and reports, as well as the concern from the United Nations; however it must be implemented rapidly in order to protect the women at risk.

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