No Ban on Forced Sterilisation in Australia


Posted by Emily Buchanan: Chartwell Insurance

Believe it or not, the involuntary sterilisation of disabled people is still legal in Australia (and technically still legal in the US). Whilst this news will come as a shock to many, the Senate Standing Committees on Community Affairs has reported that sterilisation will not be banned outright. Instead, they call for the law to be strengthened and the dated education of medical professionals and parents to be addressed.

Although much of the evidence is anecdotal, it seems that many disabled women (men are not mentioned) are being sterilised to manage menstruation and the risks associated with sexual exploitation. “[It’s] in Eliza’s best interests,” says mother Louise Robins, who is seeking the treatment for her intellectually disabled daughter. In an interview, Robins tells of Eliza’s fear of blood and her inconsolability when she is menstruating. “It’s quite distressing,” she says.

Despite the fact that parents need to go through a family court or guardianship tribunal before sterilisation can be authorized, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) says that families are increasingly “getting around” this process by taking their disabled children overseas. Legal authorization can be a lengthy process and on top of all of the other costs associated with disability, court fees in Australia run into the tens of thousands.

As it stands, there are no Commonwealth laws against taking a child with learning difficulties or physical impairments overseas for the purpose of sterilisation. Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graham Innes says “[Fertility is] a basic human right and it’s a basic question of bodily integrity for women and girls with disability… the commissions view is that we are not currently complying with human rights obligations.”

However, Australian Greens Senator and the committees chair Rachel Siewert believes quite the opposite, “To make a clear ban outright (on sterilisation), you also ban people’s rights,” she said today. As an alternative, sterilisation will be addressed on a case by case basis according to the needs of the disabled person in question. Alongside this, the committee are calling for better support programs for sex education, family planning and parenting skills in the disability sector.

Merren Carter, whose adult daughter Sophie has been sterilised, says, “It really upsets me to talk about forced sterilisation because it sounds like we did something terrible to our daughter but in actual fact, we did it because we love her and we want the best for her.”

Undoubtedly, the issue is incredibly complex and has polarized opinions. Katherine Knight, mother to 23 year old Amelia, occupies the opposite end of the spectrum to Sophie’s mother, saying, “Her bodily processes are part of her femininity and a part of her identity… She is a person, a woman, and her disability is far lower than either of those two aspects of her identity.”

The HRC continues to push for legislation to criminalise forced sterilisations except in life-threatening circumstances, believing that “One sterilisation, one forced or coerced, is one too many.”