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Sterilization a form of “systemic violence” against girls with disabilities

03 November 2017

Leilani Muir-O’Malley was almost eleven years old that summer of 1955 when her mother left her on the steps of the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. Throughout her young life, she had been unloved and neglected by a mother who had never wanted a daughter.

Muir-O’Malley spent ten years in the institution where, a few years before she was discharged, she had undergone an ‘intelligence test’ that suggested she was “a moron.” The Alberta Eugenics Board deemed her a "danger of the transmission to the progeny of Mental Deficiency or Disability, also incapable of intelligent parenthood."

When Muir-O’Malley got married and found herself having difficulty to conceive, she learned during a doctor’s visit that she had been sterilized as a teenager and that she could no longer bear children.

The young woman recalled undergoing an operation when she was living at the Provincial Training School; at the time, she was told that her appendix was being removed.

Thirty years after she had closed the School’s doors behind her, Muir-O’Malley successfully sued the Alberta Government for wrongful sterilization and damages, thus putting an end to what the judge in her case called an “unlawful, offensive, and outrageous” sterilization system. The case revealed that some 3,000 Albertans were sterilized between 1928 and 1972 under a law to prevent “mental defectives” from procreating.

Muir-O’Malley spent the rest of her life advocating for the rights of people with disabilities, raising awareness of the plight of survivors of the eugenics policy in Alberta until her death in 2016 at the age of 72.

Sterilization is defined by Mosby’s Medical Dictionary as “a process or act that renders an individual incapable of sexual reproduction.” Forced sterilization occurs when a person is sterilized after refusing the procedure, without their knowledge, or is not given an opportunity to provide informed consent.

This and other procedures are still being carried out on girls and young women with disabilities today, pointed out in her latest report Catalina Devandas, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities.

An estimated one billion people live with disabilities and experience great social disadvantages worldwide. Devandas said that disability is more prevalent among women than men, and that the intersection between young age, disability and gender results in both aggravated forms of discrimination and specific human rights violations against girls and young women with disabilities.

“Girls and young women with disabilities are disproportionately subjected to forced and involuntary sterilization for different reasons, including eugenics, menstrual management and pregnancy prevention,” Devandas wrote in her report. “Studies show that the sterilization of women and girls with disabilities continues to be prevalent, and up to three times higher than the rate for the general population.”

The UN has recognized the forced sterilization of persons with disabilities as torture; nevertheless, legal systems in many countries allow judges, healthcare professionals, family members and guardians to consent to sterilization procedures on behalf of people with disabilities, “for their own interest.”

Devandas also pointed out that parents and health professionals often use contraception to control menstruation. Girls and women with disabilities receive injections or are implanted intrauterine devices, which are less burdensome for families and carers.

Other worrisome practices include surgical procedures such as hysterectomies, purported to free girls and women with disabilities from the pain and discomfort of periods they supposedly cannot handle as well as girls and women without disabilities. Oestrogen treatments are also being increasingly administered to stunt girls’ growth and weight gain, and inhibit their entry into puberty.

“Those practices constitute gross human rights violations that go well beyond patronizing and infantilizing; they prioritize the interests of caregivers to the detriment and denial of a person’s dignity and integrity,” Devandas wrote.

The Rapporteur highlighted that these practices were often conducted as a precautionary measure against the vulnerability to sexual abuse, and under the fallacy that sterilization would enable girls and young women with disabilities who are “deemed unfit for parenthood” to improve their quality of life without the “burden” of a pregnancy.

“Sterilization neither protects them against sexual violence or abuse nor removes the State’s obligation to protect them from such abuse,” she said. “Forced sterilization is an unacceptable practice with lifelong consequences on the physical and mental integrity of girls and young women with disabilities that must be immediately eradicated and criminalized.”

Devandas recommends to States to design inclusive sex education and health services that are accessible to girls and young women with disabilities. She also urged them to devise awareness raising campaigns to change society’s perception of the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and young women with disabilities, and end all forms of violence against them.

“Girls and young women with disabilities are able to develop their own identities and realize their full potential only when their needs are met and when they feel safe,” Devandas stressed.

3 November 2017