France illegally sterilises disabled

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The Independent Online
FRENCH MENTAL hospitals are defying the law and sterilising some mentally handicapped men and women without their knowledge or permission, according to an official report.

The practice is not systematic. The investigation found no evidence of an organised or officially condoned policy to stop the mentally handicapped from passing on their genes to new generations (as was attempted in Scandinavian countries in the 1970s).

None the less, 211 women and 15 men were sterilised involuntarily in 1996 despite official attempts to prevent such operations. One in four mentally handicapped women under the age of 25 had been sterilised. The report, by the French social affairs watchdog, blames a wrong-headed attempt by a few institutions to cope with the often chaotic sexuality of mentally handicapped people.

It also complains that France has fallen behind the rest of the world in modern contraceptive techniques, which would make sterilisation of both the mentally handicapped and other people, unnecessary. In 1996, 10,500 French women were sterilised at their own request or on medical advice - an absurdly high number, says the report.

"It is astonishing that there are so many female sterilisations when progress in contraceptive methods make them less and less necessary," the report says. It is the lack of contraceptive choices - other than the Pill, which reacts badly with some mental conditions - that leads mental institutions to sterilise some of their inmates.

More than 30 years after contraception was made legal in France, "it is as if no progress had been made in contraceptive methods, as if the only alternative to the Pill is the tying of the Fallopian tubes".

The Health Ministry said it would try to stop forced sterilisation. Public and private hospitals would be reminded that the practice was strictly illegal and regarded as a form of physical mutilation. A working group would be set up to study the problem, including representatives of the medical professions and those voluntary associations that defended the interest of the mentally handicapped.

Last year the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo claimed that 15,000 mentally handicapped women in France had been subject to forced sterilisations. The Health Ministry ordered an investigation by the Inspectorate General of Social Affairs, which found the practice was not as common as the magazine claimed but was too widespread for comfort.

The inspectorate said there was an institutional fear of the sexuality of mentally handicapped people, which was partly understandable and partly exaggerated. It was sometimes difficult to know when sexual intercourse between mentally handicapped people was consensual.

It was obviously sensible to prevent mentally handicapped people from having children that they could not care for. But this could be achieved through contraception - even forced contraception - without resorting to sterilisation.

"There must be no question of forbidding mentally handicapped people the joys of sexuality," the report said.