Sterilized Without Consent: Indigenous Women in Canada Fight for their Bodily Autonomy

By: Ashley Saul

In November of 2018, attorney Alisa Lombard of Maurice Law brought a class-action lawsuit against the Saskatchewan Province Health System on behalf of 60 Indigenous women in Canada.  The basis of the suit arose from various Indigenous women who reported to Lombard that they had gone into a publicly funded administered hospital to have their babies, and when they were in the midst of labor, were coerced into getting sterilized.  Some would be approached, pressured and harassed to sign consent forms, some had no such signing of a consent form, and some had their consent revoked either on the operating table or shortly after it was signed.  Lombard explained, “they would leave essentially, after having given birth, incapable of giving birth ever again.”  A 29-year-old Cree women, named S.A.T in the legal documents, tells the story of when she went to the Royal University Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada, to give birth to her sixth child in 2001.  Shortly after giving birth, she was wheeled into an operating room to be sterilized.  S.A.T. said she desperately protested to no avail.  To this day, she still remembers the “smell of burning flesh” as she underwent tubal ligation against her will.

Lombard launched the lawsuit about six months after a 2017 report came out exposing the pervasive practice of forced sterilization of Indigenous women in Saskatchewan hospitals.  The report, which was part of an independent review commissioned by the Saksatoon Health Region, tells the story of seven different women, all who were pressured into tubal ligation.  Tubal litigation is a form of permanent birth control in which the fallopian tubes are cut, burned, or tied in an irreversible procedure.  All seven women remain anonymous but share similar stories to those in Lombard’s lawsuit.  The group of women say they felt harassed and misled by health care workers to agree to the procedure, which they had no knowledge of, and were told it was for health reasons.  Moreover, the procedure was done against the women’s will, usually in the hectic and fraught period directly after giving birth.  One woman recounted that a social worker told her that the doctor did not want her to leave the hospital until the procedure was complete, and she felt she had no choice.

While the report and Lombard’s lawsuit have brought attention to a practice that has been too often swept under the rug, they only shine a light on a fraction of the Indigenous women who have been affected by this cruel practice. In fact, Canada has a long and dark history of forced sterilization that dates back to the 1930s.  The provinces of Alberta and British Columbia both had legislation in place condoning the sterilization of people without consent, and records suggest that this practice was common in other provinces as well. Forced sterilization began with people with mental disabilities or illnesses.  However, according to Yvonne Boyer, a Canadian senator, legal scholar, and co-author of the 2017 report, the practice soon became a pretense for the sterilization of Indigenous women, mostly based on racist ideas of culture and behavior.  Boyer explained that this practice assumes that non-Indigenous doctors know what’s best for Indigenous women, despite their express wishes to the contrary.  This assumption mirrors a historical legal system that seeks out to undermine the independence of Indigenous people of Canada.  Boyer refers to this as the “Guardian Ward Mode of Law,” which assumes that Indigenous people do not have the capabilities to make decisions about their health and well-being.

The impact of forced sterilization can be extremely severe.  The plaintiffs in Lombard’s lawsuit say they have all experienced and are still experiencing debilitating physical and mental repercussions, including hormonal disorders, depression, migraines and social isolation.  One woman in Manitoba sadly took her own life 10 months after the procedure.  Lombard told Rewire News that “[w]inning the lawsuit would be a reinforcement of a confirmation that women have bodily autonomy. It’s about saying these women have the right, first and foremost, to make decisions about their own bodies.”  Lombard amended the Complaint in February of 2018 to add the federal government, the Saskatchewan government, and individual medical professionals to the list of defendants.  The Complaint demands no less than $5.3 million per plaintiff.

To see the latest updates of this litigation, click here.

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