European Court Ruling Makes Forced Sterilization of Trans People Illegal

On Thursday, April 6, Europe’s top court ruled that it is against international human rights laws to require trans people to undergo forced sterilization before receiving gender-affirmed ID documents.

Currently, it’s estimated that 22 European countries require trans people to undergo sterilization before they can be recognized in their gender-affirmed identities. These countries include Belgium, Greece, the Ukraine and Azerbaijan, to name just a few. Until late in 2016, it was also mandatory for French trans people to be sterilized, and Switzerland still has such a law on its books.

Seen by many as a dangerous hangover from two decades ago when understanding of trans identity was incredibly limited, sterilization is, of course, always deeply wrong.

The European Court of Human Rights has now officially stated that such requirements contravene basic human rights laws. The case before the court comprised three separate legal challenges to France’s former law on sterilization, as well as the country’s laws for official gender change recognition.

Julia Ehrt, the executive director at Transgender Europe, said that this ruling represents a landmark moment in the fight for trans equality – and, specifically, an opportunity to end the state’s regulation of people’s bodies:

Today is a victory for trans people and human rights in Europe. This decision ends the dark chapter of state-induced sterilisation in Europe. The 22 states in which a sterilisation is still mandatory will have to swiftly end this practice. We are looking forward to supporting those and other countries in reforming their national legislation.

This may be a somewhat optimistic take, however. While several countries will likely now repeal their sterilization laws, nations like Russia, Azerbaijan and others have frequently refused to give ground on LGBT rights. As such, continued monitoring and support of trans people in these countries will be crucial.

However, the ruling was only a qualified victory.

The cases before the court also challenged France’s use of forced medical evaluation and, separately, forced psychological evaluation for trans people. In France, as in most places — not just in Europe, but throughout the world — trans people are subjected to forced evaluations before they can live their lives gender affirmed. This kind of pathologization can be significantly injurious to a community  already at risk of poorer mental health due to societal stigma. However, the European Court ruled that such medical and psychological evaluations are lawful.

LGBT advocates maintain that this is a serious oversight by the court — and one they will continue to press. Richard Köhler, Senior Policy Officer of Transgender Europe stated:

It is regrettable that cruel and unnecessary medical examinations are seen to be in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. We will continue to raise awareness about the human rights abuses in the medical field that trans people are still systematically subjected to.

This ruling could have a specific impact for Turkey

Turkey is still waiting to join the European fold. The protracted process means that the country must first show it is in compliance with the majority of European standards, and LGBT rights are non-negotiable. Turkey has made some strides in this area, though how much of that official policy is translating to actual gains for LGBT lives remains up for debate. Regardless, Turkey’s forced sterilization rule will likely be challenged in all future attempts to join the EU.

A human model for trans affirmation 

Activists are right to assert that the government’s approach to regulating trans people is entirely unacceptable. Officials have justified this overreach on two fronts. One argument claims that the measures protect individuals undergoing the process of gender affirmation and ensure that they are not doing so due to other mental or physical problems.

But this claim goes against current data on trans identity. For the vast majority of people wanting to live gender affirmed, this group remains remarkably consistent in their gender presentation — and they do not express regrets.

Secondly, governments have argued that it is necessary to uphold these safeguards to prevent abuses of the system and fraud. But that problem simply does not exist.

We now have living examples of better gender affirmation policies. Denmark, Ireland and Malta all practice a simple system whereby individuals can notify the relevant authorities about their desire to change their gender markers. So long as the person is in compliance with other laws and regulations, they are then permitted to go through with this official change free of government or medical review.

While the aforementioned ruling represents progress in terms of Europe respecting its trans citizens, there are many more necessary steps remaining before trans people are given the dignity and freedoms that the rest of us take for granted.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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