UN Calls Out Australia For Allowing Forced Sterilisation Of Women With Disabilities

Forced sterilisation is considered tantamount to torture, so why is it still a procedure in Australia?

Forced sterilisation of women and girls with disabilities in Australia is an ongoing practice.

It has been condemned as an act of violence and torture by the United Nations, and yet it continues.

"It is an egregious act of violence, a form of social control, and a clear and documented form of torture," said Karin Swift, president of Woman with Disabilities Australia (WWDA).

As The Conversation noted in 2013, men and boys with disabilities do not factor into discussions around forced sterilisation; it is almost "exclusively" directed at women and girls.

"Any law that authorises forced or coerced sterilisation of women and girls without the prior, free, independent and informed consent of the individual concerned, is a law that condones violence against women, the consequences of which are severe and lifelong," Swift said.

This week, the UN released its report on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, noting its concern that the practice continued.

"It is concerned, however, at ... the non-consensual administration of contraceptives and abortions for, and sterilization of women with disabilities," the report said.

There were ten adult sterilisations in the 12 months leading to 30 June 2017, according to the Australian Guardianship and Administration Council (AGAC): one in the Northern Territory, one in Queensland, and four in both South Australia and Victoria.

But the true extent of the practice is not known, according to WWDA, largely thanks to the lack of uniform or robust data.

"What we do know is that the forced and coerced sterilisation of women and girls with disability, and people with intersex characteristics, continues unabated, and remains sanctioned by Australian Governments, in clear violation of six of the seven international human rights treaties to which Australia is a party," said Swift.

"The failure of successive Australian Governments to take action on the issue is shameful and disturbing."

Woman with disabilities face disproportionately high levels of violence in Australia. Photo: Getty.

Seeking a sterilisation for a person with severely limited intellectual capacity is not easy. In lieu of the person's capacity to give consent, the procedure must be authorised by a court or guardianship tribunal -- a government body.

The person applying for sterilisation -- usually a parent or primary carer -- must provide medical advice proving that alternate and less invasive procedures are inadequate, including from at least one doctor with no interest in the outcome.

A tribunal will then examine the proposal, first looking at whether the person can provide consent, and whether sterilisation is required.

People seek forced or coerced sterilisations for a number of reasons, according to WWDA: to prevent pregnancy ("often based on an assumed incapacity to parent"), to permanently stop menstruation in order to reduce the 'burden' of care, or to eliminate the need to teach women the skills needed to make decisions about their own reproductive health.

Some parents who find the Family Court system too costly and complex to navigate, take their children to countries like New Zealand or Thailand to undergo a hysterectomy, as a 2013 senate inquiry heard.

"I can assure you that parents go overseas because this subject is taboo, because the court system is too complicated and too expensive," said one parent of a person with severe intellectual disability. "Who has $10,000 to apply to the Family Court to do something to better their child's health?"

The subject came to national attention in 2016, when Australian Story featured the story of a young couple -- both with Down syndrome -- who wanted to start a family, but whose parents feared they would be left to "pick up the pieces".

"It's not that hard to have a kid," said Michael Cox, who became engaged to his girlfriend Taylor Anderton after a year of dating. "I know that some people say it's all about hard work but it's not -- it's about love and compassion that you have for your child."

Michael Cox and Taylor Anderton told Australian Story in 2016 that they wanted four children. Photo: ABC.

"We don't ask other parents in the community: 'Are you good enough to raise your child?'" Queensland Advocacy Incorporated director Michelle O'Flynn told the program. "This shouldn't be prejudging how a person with an intellectual impairment parents their children."

(Neither Michael nor Taylor could be reached for this story.)

READ MORE: Michael Cox: What Happens When 13 Million People Know Your Name?

It's not just sterilisation: women with disabilities experience menstrual suppression, forced contraception, and coerced abortion, according to WWDA.

Already, women with disabilities experience far higher rates of violence than both able-bodied women and disabled men.

For disability advocates, it's not a question of making the process less complex, or further punishing illegal sterilisations; it's about ending the practice altogether.

"For over 20 years, women with disability and their allies have been calling on successive Australian Governments to enact uniform national legislation that prohibit the practice, and to develop polices and programs that ensure disabled women and girls can realise their human rights on an equal basis as others," said Swift.

"With the recent election to the UN Human Right Council, the Australian Government has an opportunity to show global leadership by legislating to end forced and coerced sterilisation, and provide redress to those women and girls with disability who have been subject to this egregious form of violence."