Will the Czech Republic Compensate Women Sterilized against Their Will?
Wednesday, July 25, 2007 4:42 PM

Stories about the sterilization of Romany women stretch back as far as the 1970s. Experts suspect that there could have been as many as 2000 women sterilized against their will in what is now the Czech Republic . Since the fall of Communism, this topic has repeatedly made headlines, especially when last year a United Nations commission advised the Czech government to compensate victims of involuntary sterilization.

Now, a government advisory group - the Commission for Biomedicine and Human Rights - has drawn up a series of recommendations about who should be compensated and how much money should be handed out. But whether the government will pay heed to these recommendations is still uncertain.

Kumar Vishvanathan is an Indian-born Romany-rights worker in Ostrava. He explains the communist legacy of sterilizing women:

"In this country, the sterilization of Romany women took place throughout the '70s and the '80s, under the Communist regime. During this period, it was a state initiated, third-party initiated program, under the guise that the women themselves wanted to be sterilized. The women often were given some 'reward', like a bag of coal or a washing machine etc. I think it was quite a good alibi, in a sense. These women had no choice then to say 'no, I don't want your bag of coal, I would prefer to have children, thank you' - this sort of freedom was not possible under the Communist regime, in the Czech Republic's totalitarian past. The practice didn't stop in 1991, unfortunately, we know of cases as recent as three years ago."

Despite Communism falling in the Czech Republic in 1989, it is two years later, 1991, that is seen as a turning point for cases of involuntary sterilization. This is because it took some time to draft new legislation and advocate new practices in the Czech health system.

Vladimira Boskova was one of the members of the advisory committee that drew up the proposals to compensate sterilized women. She is also the head of the Czech patients' support agency. She explains what happened next, once communism fell:

"There are no two ways about it, a new state, which has a new relationship with its citizens, should display a certain amount of decency. It should, at least symbolically, try and correct some of the worst wrongs of its predecessor. After all of the political changes of 1990, unfortunately, our state didn't speak out against these forced sterilizations. And the result of this was that these abuses; these dubious laws, and these even more dubious practices within the Czech health system, didn't go away. The malpractice continued on into the '90s and up until as recently as 2000."

The government commissioner for human rights is Jan Litomisky. He is against setting up a state fund to compensate women who were involuntarily sterilized. Here's why:

"Following on from 1990, it has been less of a case of paying out damages, and more of a case of trying to limit the wrongs committed under communism. Some wrongs have been partially rectified, some haven't been at all. My fear is that our government will not be willing to bring this discussion up again, because it's a Pandora's box. Endless amounts of wrongs were committed under communist rule. My wife, for example, wasn't allowed to go to secondary school, let alone university - she's not getting any compensation. Probably everyone has their own grievance with the communist regime, which they are not getting compensation for."

But, as both Boskova and Vishvanathan hinted at, cases of involuntary sterilization didn't just stop with the fall of communism. Around thirty women, and even one man, have complained to the Czech ombudsman of this happening to them in more recent years. Kumar Vishvanathan again:

"Each case is different; each woman has a different story to tell. But basically, they all agree, in a sense, that the sterilization happened during childbirth, the sterilization happened a matter of minutes before a caesarian section was carried out, and it happened when they signed a bit of paper agreeing, they thought, to c-section and not to a sterilization. Some women were told, during the process of child-birth, that they were going to be sterilized, they had no idea, and at that time, they had no interest in what these words meant, as they were too busy giving birth to a child. Two minutes, three minutes, five minutes before childbirth, these women were given a piece of paper to sign. Some women were misled into thinking that sterilization is something temporary. They thought they were going to have a break from childbirth for a couple of years, and then after a few years they would be able to regain their fertility. They were also misled in this respect."

So what does human rights commissioner Jan Litomisky think about compensating individuals in these more recent cases?

"As for the situation after 1991, I think that it is really a matter to be resolved between the patient and the doctor that provided the care in each individual case. This is not a matter for the state to get involved in. Most importantly, I don't think the state should take the responsibility for an individual's actions. So, if someone acts in an unprofessional way and breaks the rules, then they must suffer the consequences of that, and not the state."

Vladimira Boskova's commission recommends that each victim of involuntary sterilization should be awarded 200,000 CZK (around 10,000 USD); she said that figure was arrived at by looking at what other countries have paid out in the past. But the health minister, Dzamila Stehlikova, and Jan Litomisky, have both spoken out against the idea.

If the government won't compensate victims, says Boskova, they should at least tighten up on what actually constitutes lawful consent:

"Consent should be given a minimum of seven days before the operation takes place, so that the patient has time to consider whether this is what they want or not, and to discuss this with their husband if they want to. Right now, we are missing any proper legislation on this front. What we do have is brief, and what little there is of it is ambiguous. According to Czech law, a patient must give their consent to a procedure or, failing that, a doctor can carry out a procedure if he can assume that this is what the patient wants. This point is not properly defined, and there is lots of room for it to be distorted."

In response to this, Mr. Litomisky said the government is currently drafting up stricter laws on consent. So watch this space.

But back to the subject of compensation; according to Kumar Vishvanathan, even if the government did set up a fund, there would still be a hitch:

"There is also another problem, which is the problem of women whose medical documents were destroyed by hospitals. It is very difficult for these women to prove that there cases are, in fact, real."

On the subject of lost documents, and the future of the Czech health service, here's the report's author, Vladimira Boskova, one more time:

"I know that in so-called western countries, a lot more people would be eligible for compensation than are here in the Czech Republic. This is because in western countries it is a fundamental rule that if someone's medical records are lost, then it is the healthcare provider who is at fault. Unfortunately, we've still got some way to go until we reach that stage."

"We are refusing to talk about our past. So this shows that we are not in any position to look the present in the face, let alone to the future, in our Czech health service."

Compiled from: Johnson, Rosie, “Will the State Compensate Women Sterilized Against Their Will?” Radio Prague, 24 July 2007.