On March 22, 2011, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France held a Chamber hearing in the case of V.C. vs. Slovakia concerning a Roma woman who alleges she was forcibly sterilized by a Slovakian state hospital. While Roma women have made claims of forced and coercive sterilizations by Eastern European countries for decades, this is the first case of its kind to reach Strasbourg.
V.C. is a Roma woman and Slovakian national from Šarišská Poruba, Slovakia. At the time of the sterilization, she was approximately twenty years old. She has a sixth grade education and is unemployed.
According to her complaint, V.C. gave birth to her second child in 2000 via caesarian section at the Slovakian Ministry’s University Teaching Hospital in Presov. While hospitalized at Presov, V.C. alleges that she was segregated because of her ethnic origin and placed in a “Gypsy room,” which was separated from the white patients. It is also alleged that she was made to use separate bathroom facilities.
Hospital records indicate V.C. requested to be sterilized after being told by physicians that a third pregnancy would likely result in a ruptured uterus. However, V.C. claims that the sterilization procedure was performed without her full and informed consent. She alleges that while in the pain of the final stages of labor, doctors asked her if she wanted to have more children. After responding in the affirmative, she was then informed that if she had another child, it would die. V.C. states that it was at that time when she signed the consent form, without having knowledge or understanding as to the consequences of sterilization. (See European Court of Human Right’s 2009 decision as to the admissibility of V.C.’s 2007 application)
V.C. claims that her ethnic origin played a key factor as to the way in which she was handled and the medical advice and treatment she received. The Slovakian government denies all of the allegations, stating that V.C. was treated in the same manner as the white patients and that the medical advice provided was not based upon her ethnicity or skin color.
In 2006, V.C. filed civil complaint against the hospital staff, but ultimately the Presov Regional Court dismissed it on appeal. The Court found that the sterilization was lawfully done, that it was a medical necessity and that V.C. had given her consent.
As indicated in the European Court of Human Rights’ Press Release issued by the Registrar of the Court on March 22, 2011, “[t]he applicant’s sterilisation has had serious medical and psychological after-effects. Notably in 2007/2008 she showed all the signs of being pregnant but was not (known as a “hysterical pregnancy”). Treated since 2008 by a psychiatrist, she continues to suffer from being sterilised. She has been ostracised by the Roma community and her current husband has left her several times due to her infertility.”
Slovakia’s History of Forced Sterilizations:
The practice of “Roma sterilization” dates back to the 1970’s when the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia regularly used forced or coercive sterilization measures to “control” the Roma population. Roma women who participated in the procedures were given a government financial incentive as encouragement.
According to written comments submitted in 2009 to the UN’s Committee Against Torture by the Centre for Civil and Human Rights, “60% of the sterilisation operations performed from 1986 to 1987 were on Romani women, who represented only 7% of the population of the district. Another study found that in 1983, approximately 26% of sterilised women in eastern Slovakia (the region where the Applicants reside) were Romani women; by 1987, this figure had risen to 36.6%. In 1992, a report by Human Rights Watch addressed the practice of coercive sterilisation in Czechoslovakia, noting that many Romani women were not fully aware of the irreversible nature of the intervention and was forced into it because of their poor economic situation or pressure from authorities.” (also citing Statistical Evaluation of the Cases of Sexual Sterilisation of Romani Women in East Slovakia, 1990)
Although the Communist regime collapsed in the early 1990’s, the sterilizations continued. Procedurally, they varied from hospital to hospital but the results were the same. According to a 2001 Open Society Institute report, Finnish nurses noticed unusually high occurrences of sterilization and ovary removal in female Roma asylum seekers from Slovakia seeking refuge in Finland.
The “Body and Soul Report”
Perhaps the most influential and widely circulated report concerning the forced sterilization of Roma women in Slovakia came in 2003 when the Center for Reproductive Rights released Body and Soul: Forced Sterilization and Other Assaults of Roma Reproductive Freedom. For three months, the Center for Reproductive Rights, based in the United States, and the Centre for Civil and Human Rights, based in Slovakia, conducted interviews with more than 230 Roma women throughout eastern Slovakia. “The interviews revealed numerous instances of coerced, forced and suspected sterilization of Romani women, along with physical and verbal abuse, racially discriminatory standards of care, misinformation in health matters, and denial of access to medical records.” The Report culminated in a criminal investigation into the sterilization of Roma women. However, it was eventually discontinued on the grounds that no wrongdoing had been committed.
The following 2003 documentary from Journeyman Pictures provides a comprehensive overview of the recent history of forced sterilization of Roma women in Slovakia. Slovakian human rights attorney Barbora Bukovska, who gave comments in Strasbourg last month and who has been instrumental in bringing such cases to light, is highlighted in the film.
Access to Medical Records - K.H. and Others vs. Slovakia
Perhaps one of the most difficult hurdles Roma women faced in filing suit against state hospitals for forced sterilization was gaining access to their own medical records. In 2002, eight Roma women in Slovakia attempted to retrieve their medical records after finding they were unable to conceive after undergoing caesarian sections. The women wished to establish cause as to why they were unable to conceive. After the hospitals refused to release their records, the women filed a civil suit in Slovak court. However, their requests were denied and the Court held that the records were the property of the hospitals and not the women.
In 2004, the eight women filed suit against the hospitals with the European Court of Human Rights. In April 2009, the Court ruled that denying the women access to their medical records was in violation of Article 6 paragraph 1 and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Specifically, the Court held that access to medical records is a right to private and family life and that those persons wishes to make photocopies of their own medical records should be allowed to do so without providing reason as to their purpose or objective. The applicable articles of the European Convention on Human Rights states:
Article 6 paragraph 1:
In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law. Judgement shall be pronounced publicly by the press and public may be excluded from all or part of the trial in the interest of morals, public order or national security in a democratic society, where the interests of juveniles or the protection of the private life of the parties so require, or the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice.
1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Human rights attorney Barbora Bukovska said this in response to the ruling:
“This case indicates the complicity of the Slovak Government in the practice of forced sterilization of Romani women. Originally, in spring of 2002, we were able to access and copy medical records of our clients. But as soon as the hospitals realized we were seeking access to medical records on forced sterilizations, they halted the access. The Slovak Government, instead of rectifying the situation, supported the hospitals in their position and over the years, denied their responsibility for the violations. All of this in order to prevent forcibly sterilized Romani women from finding truth about their sterilization surgeries and seeking compensations for them.” (See Press Release, Centre for Civil and Human Rights, April 2009)
A.S. vs. Hungary
While V.C. vs. Slovakia is the first case of forced sterilization against Roma women to be heard by the Human Right’s Court, legal precedence nonetheless exists. In 2004, A.S. vs. Hungary was submitted to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) alleging that a Hungarian Roma woman was forcibly sterilized in a Hungarian hospital while being treated after her unborn child died in the womb. According to its findings communicated in 2006, CEDAW found that the woman signed a consent form to perform a caesarian section to remove the dead fetus, but that included within the consent form was a “barely legible” handwritten note that read:
“Having knowledge of the death of the embryo inside my womb I firmly request my sterilization. I do not intend to give birth again; neither do I wish to become pregnant.”
After the procedure but before leaving the hospital, A.S. asked the doctor when she could try to have another baby. “It was only then when she was informed as to the meaning of “sterilization.”’ (See CEDAW’s findings, 2006.)
Ultimately, CEDAW found that Hungary violated Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, specifically articles 10 (h), 12 and 16 paragraph 1 (e) which state:
Article 10 (h):
States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in order to ensure to them equal rights with men in the field of education and in particular to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women:
(h) Access to specific educational information to help to ensure the health and well being of families, including information and advice on family planning.
1. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, access to health- care services, including those related to family planning.
2. Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph 1 of this article, States Parties shall ensure to women appropriate services in connexion with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.
Article 16, paragraph 1 (e):
States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women:
(e) The same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights.
United States’ response:
In regards to forced and coercive sterilization, Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, United States Congressman Christopher Smith (R-NJ) stated, “as a matter of justice for the victims and truth about the past due to all the people of Slovakia this practice should be condemned as a grave human rights violation.”
The European Court of Human Rights is not expected to rule in the matter of V.C. vs. Slovakia for several weeks. After their decision, either side may appeal the seven-judge ruling to the Court’s Grand Chamber.
For more information, please read the following article on NPR: Court Hears Claim of Forced Roma Sterilization, Associated Press.
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