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Coerced Sterilizations in the Czech Republic and Slovakia

  • Hon. Christopher H. Smith

House of Representative

109th Congress, First Session

Mr. Speaker, last week, the district court in the Czech town of Ostrava reached a very important decision. The court concluded that, in 2001 after the birth of her second child, a local Romani woman was sterilized without informed consent. In fact, since last year, the Czech Ombudsman has been examining dozens of similar cases. Although he has not yet issued any public findings, it is expected that the Ombudsman will confirm that many other Romani women experienced similar violations of their rights, as documented by several Czech human rights groups and the European Roma Rights Center. 

Sadly, the issue of sterilizations without informed consent is not new in this region. As early as 1977, the dissident group Charter 77 reported on systematic efforts to target Romani women in Czechoslovakia for coerced sterilization. While the vast majority of sterilizations in the Czech Republic and Slovakia since 1989 were performed with informed consent, the Ostrava case demonstrates that the practice of performing sterilizations without informed consent did not completely end with the fall of the communist regime. 

That precedent-setting court decision sheds light on a number of legal points in one specific case. At the same time, there are many larger questions still at issue, including whether racism against Roma contributed to the abuse. Frankly, given the large percentage of Roma among the victims of sterilization without informed consent compared with the small percentage of the Czech population that Roma constitute, it is hard for me to believe that race did not play some role. There are, of course, other possible factors to consider: what role did a poor quality of medical care or training play in these cases of medical malpractice? Did a lack of respect for an individual’s liberty–a hold-over mentality from the totalitarian period–also contribute to the abuse? 

I welcome the Ostrava court’s decision and commend the plaintiff in that case, Helena Ferencikova, for her courage in bringing it forward. I have also been heartened by the apparent seriousness of the Ombudsman’s investigation into this difficult and sensitive matter. 

Unfortunately, similar issues in neighboring Slovakia continue to be met with government denials and stonewalling. 

In 2003, the Slovak Government concluded a year-long investigation into allegations that some Romani women were sterilized without informed consent, even after the fall of communism. That investigation was deeply flawed. At one point, for example, a spokesperson for the Minister for Human Rights threatened that anyone bringing forward allegations of sterilization without informed consent would go to jail, one way or another. This is not the way to foster confidence in an investigation or to encourage victims to speak out. 

Significantly, the Czech investigation and the Slovak investigation both revolved around the same 1992 Czechoslovak law on sterilizations, put in place before the two countries split apart. Czech authorities have understood that law as requiring that sterilizations had to be requested by the person who was going to be sterilized, that there had to be evidence of consent by that person, and that consent had to be meaningfully informed. Being “informed” means, for example, that the expectant mother must be told why the procedure is necessary. If someone was given false information about the procedure, which was the case in many instances, then she was not meaningfully “informed.” 

When interpreting the same law, however, Slovak authorities maintained that consent did not have to be “informed.” Accordingly, Slovak investigators examined numerous cases where there was no informed consent but still concluded there was no violation of the 1992 law because, according to their twisted logic, consent didn’t have to be informed! 

In reality, the Slovak Government seemed to organize its investigation into the sterilization cases in a way that was designed to cover up the magnitude of the problem. The Slovak Government’s investigation revealed seven cases of Romani minors who were sterilized in violation of the then-existing Slovak law. In reality, the Slovak Government’s interpretation of the concept of “consent” could not be reconciled with modern health norms and had to be changed to explicitly require that consent is informed. (The new law went into effect at the beginning of this year.) In reality, numerous international officials have repeatedly expressed concern over the sterilization practices in the Slovak Republic and the inadequacy of the Slovak Government’s response to them, including in the April 2005 report on the situation of Roma issued by the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner. 

In light of all this, it is extremely frustrating to read that Slovak officials have, in recent months, made misleading statements about this important issue. Apparently one official has even declared that “illegal sterilizations of Romani women never happened in Slovakia.” 

Mr. Speaker, when the institutions of justice are perceived to follow one set of rules for the majority and another for minorities, this is a recipe for social unrest–as we know from our own painful history. 

I understand that it is always a difficult exercise for any government to admit its own wrongdoing or the wrongdoings of the majority society–we know this, too. But Romani mistrust of government institutions will only deepen if the Slovak Government persists in denying the wrongs perpetrated against their community.

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