Disturbing allegations emerged from Uzbekistan yesterday, where hundreds of women claimed that they were forcibly sterilized by the government in an attempt to lower the birthrate. The women targeted were those from poor, rural areas, particularly those who have HIV, TB or drug addictions. The Uzbek government, fearing that overpopulation would spark unrest, earlier this year ramped up a population control program initiated by autocratic President Islam Karimov in the late 1990s.
The program did not specifically instruct doctors to conduct mass sterilizations, but doctors claim that there was significant pressure to do so. Health workers were threatened with salary cuts or firings if they did could not persuade a minimum of two women a month to be sterilized; one woman reported that a nurse told her, “they would hang me if I let you have another child.” Many Uzbek women see sterilization as their only contraceptive option; some said that their husbands refused to let them use condoms or birth control pills.
Other women, though, were devastated when they learned that surgical procedures or medical examinations had resulted in sterilization. “He never asked for my approval, never ran any checks, just mutilated me as if I were a mute animal,” said Saodat Rakhimbayeva, who awoke from a cesarean section to discover that doctors had removed her uterus. Her newborn son died three days later.
Some health workers reported that instruments are not properly sterilized, and can harm other women. Procedures by inexperienced medical professionals also caused serious health complications.
These allegations, if they turn out to be true (and they certainly sound plausible), represent a horrifying breach of women’s ability to decide when and if they want to have children. Even for the women who were sterilized by choice, the fear that they had no other options surely played a part, in a country where other, less permanent, forms of contraception were not available. Such invasive forms of population control are unethical, and should be condemned.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.