Forced Sterilization, from Namibia to North Carolina

Posted on 8.03.2012 by Amy

In a landmark case, Namibia's high court has ruled in favor of three women who say they were forcibly sterilized at a state hospital between 2005 and 2007. The women claim they were targeted because they were HIV-positive (although the judge apparently rejected that claim).

Accusations of state hospitals targeting HIV-positive mothers for sterilization have reportedly emerged in multiple countries in Africa, including Kenya, Swaziland and South Africa. In Namibia, about 13 percent of adults are HIV positive.

While it's possible to prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child, so-called healthcare providers are apparently taking prevention into their own hands in the most inhumane of ways. It seems the focus on preventing HIV transmission to children can imperil and marginalize their mothers, as HIV/AIDS expert Stephen Lewis noted in a powerful speech at the AIDS Conference* last month. Here's what Lewis said about a global plan launched at a United Nations meeting, "To Eliminate New HIV Infections Among Children by 2015 and Keeping Mothers Alive":

"The people on the inside of this plan know—will never admit but know—that the Keeping Mothers Alive part was an eleventh hour insertion because women are always overlooked. As a matter of fact, if you take a look at the UNAIDS website today, it highlights the Global Plan to Eliminate new HIV Infections Among Children by 2015, giving only a subsidiary cut-line at the end for Keeping Mothers Alive.

"This has been one of the scandals of the history of AIDS. Preventing vertical transmission of the virus from mother to child is perhaps the easiest preventive intervention there is, but we marked time between 2000 and 2005, losing five precious years, and it is only latterly that we’ve suddenly begun to emphasize the importance of the mother."

These cases appear to show that some practitioners are not only ignoring HIV-positive mothers, but actively taking away their reproductive agency. Here's an excerpt from the Guardian article explaining the case:

"Facing a court room packed with campaigners wearing black T-shirts printed with the words 'Non negotiable: my body, my womb, my rights', Judge Elton Hoff took two hours to read his judgment.

"He said the three women in the case, who were sterilised in Namibian state hospitals between 2005 and 2007, had dealt with health staff who could not speak their language, Oshiwambo. They were handed consent forms containing unintelligible acronyms. The forms were produced while the women were in labour, minutes before they were wheeled into the operating theatre. In at least one case, the woman had been in labour for four days and was made to believe she would only be eligible for her caesarean if she signed the form. In all three cases, the women only realised the meaning of 'BTL' – bilateral tubal ligation – after the surgery."

The judge has not said how much money in damages the women may (or may not) receive.

A colleague of mine told me about this story, her voice carrying a mix of subdued excitement that the judge had legitimized the women's pain (albeit not exactly in the most stringent of terms, calling the practice of making women sign papers during labor "highly undesirable") and a muted horror at what they'd been through (muted perhaps because it was lunchtime and we were hungry and hot and on a busy sidewalk).

When she finished, my colleague said in an offhand way: "We just have to make sure it doesn't sound like it only happens in Namibia, you know?"

She's right.

It's happened here, too.

A Los Angeles Times story a few months ago noted how nearly 7,600 people were sterilized under orders from the Eugenics Board in North Carolina between 1929 and 1974. One of those women, Elaine Riddick, was 14 years old when she became pregnant as a result of rape. She's had the courage to speak out about her story, noting how: "They butchered me like a hog."

That program was part of a racist campaign in the United States aimed at controlling the reproductive powers of the mentally ill, the poor and people of color. A North Carolina pamphlet from 1950 claimed the board was protecting "the children of future generations and the community at large," noting that "you wouldn't expect a moron to run a train or a feebleminded woman to teach school." While the immediate circumstances of the women sterilized in Namibia are different, forced sterilization is a practice that happens when a patriarchal medical establishment decides people who meet certain criteria are not full human beings, not worthy of maintaining the basic human right to reproduce. More than anything else it's about which people a racist, patriarchal society values, and which people it does not.

North Carolina had reportedly proposed offering $50,000 to victims of forced sterilization. That's more than the women in Namibia -- or the up to 65,000 victims in at least 30 states in this country -- are bound to get, but the offer just made Elaine Riddick more indignant.

"Is that what they think my life is worth?" she asked. "How much are the kids I never had worth? How much?"