Dark purple background showing a person's body, and the text "Forced Sterilization of Disabled People in the United States."

New report from National Women’s Law Center and AWN finds over 30 states legally allow forced sterilization

The report cover is dark purple and shows two dark-skinned people looking away from the camera. The title says Forced Sterilization of Disabled People in the United States. There are logos for the National Women's Law Center and the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network. Under the logos, it says, with help from the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network.

(Washington, D.C.) Today, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) released a report, “Forced Sterilization of Disabled People in the United States,” with contributions by the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network (AWN). The report unveils groundbreaking research exposing laws across the country that allow for disabled people to be permanently sterilized against their will. These laws take away disabled people’s basic rights to make decisions about their bodies and their future, and empower judges to make the decisions for them. The report’s findings reveal that:

  • 31 states plus Washington, D.C., have laws explicitly allowing forced sterilization;
  • States have continued to pass forced sterilization laws well into recent years, with the most recent laws being passed in 2019 in Iowa and Nevada;
  • Out of the states that allow forced sterilization, about half require the person being sterilized to be under guardianship, while the remaining states allow for forced sterilization of both people who are and are not under guardianship;
  • 17 states allow forced sterilizations on disabled children, 3 states explicitly prohibit it, and the remaining 11 states and Washington, D.C. do not have specific language on minors.

These laws affect mostly people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. They also affect people with disabilities related to mental health. People who do not get pregnant (such as cisgender men) can also be forced to get sterilized under these laws, but forced sterilizations primarily target people who can get pregnant and have periods. 

“Forced sterilization laws are not an aberration – they are part of a larger, horrifying system that prevents disabled people from making basic decisions about their lives, their families, and their futures,” said Ma’ayan Anafi, author of the report, and senior counsel for health equity and justice at NWLC. “These laws are part of a long history of state-sanctioned sterilizations, and are rooted in false, paternalistic assumptions about disabled people. No judge, guardian, or politician should have the right to take away anyone’s fundamental right to decide whether to have children. It’s long overdue to fully transform this ruthless system.”

“Far too many disabled people have survived forced sterilization,” said Lydia X. Z. Brown, Director of Policy, Advocacy, and External Affairs at the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network, “which is part of a long, sordid history of forcibly sterilizing disproportionate numbers of Black, Native, Mexican/Chicanx, Japanese and Borikén/Puerto Rican women. Unfortunately, not enough people know that forced sterilization is still widespread and completely legal.”

“Everyone should have the right to decide if they want to have children or not,” said Sharon daVanport, founding Executive Director at the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network. “Disabled people deserve to have accurate information about sex and reproductive health, and we deserve laws that protect our right to make decisions for ourselves.”

The report is written in Plain Language, a style intended to increase accessibility, especially for some people with intellectual disabilities. Even though forced sterilization laws primarily affect people with intellectual disabilities, they are frequently left out of the discussion about their rights. Giving people with intellectual disabilities the tools and supports to understand the issues that impact them, including providing information in Plain Language, helps them engage in issues where their voices and decision-making are vital. 

Please visit NWLC’s website for more information. Please contact Olympia Feil ([email protected]) to speak with an expert, including author of the report, Ma’ayan Anafi.

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