Time's up for forced sterilisation

Susan Frankel
People with disabilities and females in particular will soon know the outcome of an inquiry into forced sterilisation in Australia. The report on submissions by disability advocates and people affected signals the urgent need for long-overdue changes to the law. Such changes would go a long way to protect and respect the rights of girls, women and people with disabilities. Views are both varied and complex.
Posted by: 
Susan Frankel on 29/04/2013
Artistic photo of an hourglass

People with disabilities and females in particular will soon know the outcome of an inquiry into forced sterilisation in Australia.

The long-overdue report on the practice of forced sterilisation of women and children in Australia is something Disability advocates have been demanding for years. Both Disability advocates and United Nations are outraged about the breach of human rights. Submissions by advocates and people affected by forced sterilisation are expected to result in changes to the law that will safeguard people's rights, particularly those most at risk - teenage girls and women.

The Senate Inquiry into Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of People with Disabilities in Australia began in late 2012. Submissions to the Inquiry have now closed and the Senate will report on the Inquiry by June this year.

79 submissions as well as other documents have been received by the Senate Standing Committees on Community Affairs, Canberra. Many are critical of current laws, with some of those affected voicing both hurt and fear. Other submissions show that there have been benefits to forced sterilisation, but it remains a highly contentious and emotional issue.

Submissions from around Australia are from individuals and organisations. Organisations that have voiced opinions include Women with Disabilities Australia, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, People with Disability Australia, Sexual Health and Family Planning Australia, Department of Paediatric and Adolescent Gynaecology at Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne, National Council on Intellectual Disability and Catholic Social Services Victoria. Some individual submissions have had their names withheld from the list on request. Individuals who have included submissions include Stella Young (ABC Ramp Up), Professor Susan Hayes as well as parents and others affected by the forced sterilisation process.

The inquiry marks an important turning point. It is looking into the choices people with disabilities have regarding contraception, reproduction and their own bodies. It will tell us the number of people who have had an operation against their will. It will also expose the impact of forced contraception or medical procedures on people, particularly girls and women, with cognitive and physical disabilities.

Women With Disabilities Australia has also included a submission for the Senate Inquiry. Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) is the peak non-government organisation (NGO) for women with all types of disabilities in Australia. The group has documented reasons for forced sterilisations that include, maintaining a ''strong'' gene pool for the good of the state, community or family; recognising the incapacity for parenthood and the prevention of sexual abuse. Women with Disabilities Australia said these reasons were typically aimed at women with disabilities.

In Australia there are no official figures on the breadth of forced sterilisation. It is believed that existing figures are unreliable. It is also not known how many cases may not have been documented. This poses some serious questions.

The WWDA submission looks in detail at forced and coerced sterilisation as a violation of human rights. It provides an analysis of how the practice breaches every international human rights treaty to which Australia is a party. This submission makes 18 key recommendations to the committee. These include enacting national legislation prohibiting, except where there is a serious threat to life, the use of sterilisation of girls, regardless of whether they have a disability, and of adult women with disabilities in the absence of their fully informed and free consent.

The group also seeks to establish and adequately resource a National Task Force to develop a Policy and Framework to address the forced and coerced sterilisation of women and girls with disabilities in Australia.

Current Victorian legislation states that involuntary treatments such as sterilisations and abortions, or 'special procedures' can only be carried out by order of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).

Under the Victorian Guardianship and Administration Act 1986 a 'special procedure' is defined to include: 'any procedure that is intended, or is reasonably likely, to have the effect of rendering permanently infertile the person on whom it is carried out'; 'termination of pregnancy'; and 'any removal of tissue for the purposes of transplantation to another person'.

The Guardianship and Administration Act 1986 sets out the manner in which the VCAT may consent to the performance of a 'special procedure' where the person in question is unable to give consent and the procedure would be in the patient's best interests. This Act only applies to a person who is aged 18 years or over. The Guardianship and Administration Act 1986 provides quite severe penalties for any medical practitioner who carries out a special procedure without having obtained the proper consent.

While the Guardianship and Administration Act 1986 is currently being reviewed by the Victorian Law Reform Commission, there is no indication at present that the Commission will make any recommendation to reform the provisions relating to obtaining consent for forced sterilisations and abortions. The Victorian Office of the Public Advocate (OPA) must be given notice of any application and is entitled to participate in the case.

The need for legislative reform, financial reparation, a national protection mechanism for better representation in decision-making and leadership positions are all suggestions that have been voiced at the Senate Inquiry. There is a demand for new structures, mechanisms and initiatives to be established and to enable and foster participation and engagement. Another priority is the urgent review of funding.

But stories and views on the issues surrounding forced sterilisation are varied. For example one parent is relieved her 27 year-old intellectually disabled daughter, now living independently in the community, has had a device fitted to solve an inability to manage the monthly workings of her body. This device also prevents conception; she says if her daughter got pregnant, the responsibility of the child would become hers and not her daughter's. Another parent with a severely intellectually disabled daughter said any decision would have to be in the daughter's best interests, that it would be a well considered and informed decision made by her loving parents in consultation with relevant medical practitioners. Many parents, in their submissions, share this view.

One academic, in addressing the terms of reference, points out that any procedure must be in the interests of the person, consider ethical aspects and whether the person in question has the ability to make decisions. That submission also looked at intellectually disabled males who refused to use a condom.

Another submission argues for 'child safety'; yet another is pro-sterilisation of intellectually disabled persons. The Catholic Women's League Australia Inc. says the goal of a national approach should be to eliminate the demand for all forms of involuntary or coerced sterilisation being sought by others for people with disabilities. Stella Young, in her submission, sums up by saying, Ultimately, we must protect the human rights of all people with disabilities; this means an end to Australia's current sterilisation practices. She also says girls and women with disabilities should not bear the brunt of existing or potential abusive behaviour.

At the core of the Inquiry is the issue of Human Rights and ensuring the rights of all Australians are addressed when it comes to the law and being protected, respected and properly represented. Those advocating against forced sterilisation are now on the road to ensuring those rights exist for everyone.

For details on the Senate Inquiry into Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of People with Disabilities in Australia, visit the Parliament of Australia website.

Readers comments (3)

We as parents of a daughter with a moderate intellectual disability should have the right to make descisions for the benefit of her well being. We make every other descision regarding her life as she is not capable. We have already made the descision regarding her menstral cycle as she didnt cope and did not understand what was happening. Her life is difficult enough with out having these extra burdens. She will never have a child in my life time, she would never be able to care for or look after a child , she is still and will always be a child herself because of her disability. why are we made to feel like bad parents ,when we are trying to do what is best for her and that has been our only intention her whole life. make things easier for all of us, we shouldnt have to feel guilty for making appropriate descisions that she hasnt the capacity to make herself.

I'm with you Christina,
I don't have a child, yet alone a child with a disability. I hope I don't anger people with my comments but I don't think anyone who requires a guardian themselves should be having children. This goes for girls in their teens and adults with intellectual disabilities. Accidents happen and we can't go sterilizing everyone when they hit puberty because they won't be able to have children later on. When a female child has a strong enough intellectual disability that they will never be able to care for a child I think only good can come of serialization. You are protecting them, this is not assault, battery or torture. Don't let anyone make you feel guilty for your choice to better help your child.

Forty years ago, short stature in males was seen and documented as a disability for boys. Involuntary chemical castration whilst in six hours of deep sleep therapy being chemically castrated was torture, a torture akin to what Dr Megele was doing to boys in the Concentration Camps. There was no consent to have prepubertal males castrated and the side effects of continuing hypogonadrophic hypogonadism are disabling. No one has any right to inflict assault, battery or torture upon anyone else

Comment on this article