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Involuntary sterilisation: we still need to guard against it
  1. Sam Rowlands1,
  2. Jean-Jacques Amy2
  1. 1 Centre of Postgraduate Medical Research and Education, Faculty of Health and Social Sciences, Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, UK
  2. 2 Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium
  1. Correspondence to Professor Sam Rowlands, Centre of Postgraduate Medical Research & Education, Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, BH1 3LT, UK; srowlands{at}

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Bodily autonomy and valid consent processes are fundamental to human rights. Sterilisation is an important means of fertility control but should never infringe human rights. Professionals need to be aware of the varied contexts in which sterilisations without due regard to human rights have been done.

Historical context

Various ideologies, promoted from the late 19th century until well into the second half of the 20th, have contributed to practices of involuntary (forced) sterilisation, especially of those considered to be ‘undesirable’ or a ‘burden to society’. Imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy have all influenced social and economic standards by which people and their fertility are valued.1 Neo-Malthusianism, too, advocated coercive sterilisation practices prior to the Second World War, an uncomfortable truth for the family planning movement which began joining forces with the population movement in 1952. However, from that time forward, both movements were signed up to the principle of voluntarism; in other words, that a person is willing to undergo the procedure and is not being unduly influenced, pressurised or coerced.

Involuntary sterilisation began as a punitive measure for criminal behaviour, especially in the USA in the second half of the 19th century.2 Eugenics became a strong movement from 1883 onwards, its proponents claiming that mankind can shape the characteristics of its descendants through selective ‘breeding’.2 It was mostly put into practice only in countries without a strong Catholic ethic, where it was backed by scientists and opinion leaders, and then put on a legal footing by political authorities. Two-thirds of US states and some Canadian provinces took up eugenics; involuntary …

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