Women and Justice: Keywords

International Case Law

I.G. and Others v. Slovakia European Court of Human Rights (2013)

Abortion and reproductive health rights, Forced sterilization, International law

Three applicants, all Roma women, alleged that a public hospital sterilized them without their consent and that they were unable to obtain appropriate redress from the Slovakian authorities. Although the Court found that the third applicant’s children lacked standing to continue the proceedings in their mother’s stead, it ruled in favor of the first and second applicants. The first and second applicants argued that they had been denied their right to have a family because the hospital sterilized them without consent. The Court accepted that the first applicant felt debased and humiliated when she learned that she had been sterilized without her or her legal guardians’ prior informed consent. Considering the nature of the sterilization, its circumstances, the applicant’s age, and the fact that she was a member of a vulnerable population group, the Court concluded that the second applicant’s sterilization was also with a violation of the requirement of respect for her human freedom and dignity. The Court’s decision ultimately rested on Article 3 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

K.H. and Others v. Slovakia European Court of Human Rights (2011)

Abortion and reproductive health rights, Forced sterilization, International law

The eight applicants in this case were all women of Roma ethnicity. They each suspected they had been sterilized during caesarian section deliveries at two different hospitals. Both hospitals denied the applicants’ requests to obtain copies of their medical records, and the applicants brought actions in different District Courts. The courts ordered the hospitals to allow access to the records and handwritten notes to be taken, but dismissed the request to make photocopies of the records. The Regional Courts both upheld the decision on appeal. The Constitutional Court also upheld the decision of the lower court. Subsequently, the applicants’ legal representatives were permitted to make copies of the applicants’ records due to the passage of the Health Care Act of 2004. Only one applicant did not receive her records and was informed they were lost, but she received a summary of her surgical procedure confirming she had been sterilized. The applicants argued that the hospital’s refusal to allow copies of their medical records violated their Article 8 right to respect for their private and family life. The applicants argued that the State’s prohibition on photocopying medical records prevented them from gathering evidence required for future litigation in violation of their Article 6 right to access a court. The State argued that the Health Care Act of 1994 did not allow legal representatives of applicants to photocopy records, and this prevented potential abuse of records. The European Court of Human Rights found that access to health and reproductive status information was relevant to private and family life under Article 8, and that the burden lay with the refusing party to give compelling reasons for refusal. The Court found the State’s argument was not sufficiently compelling, and that the State had violated the applicants’ rights under Article 8. The Court also found a violation Article 6’s provision of a right to access a court, and awarded the applicants damages.

V. C. v. Slovakia European Court of Human Rights (2011)

Abortion and reproductive health rights, Forced sterilization, International law

VC, a Roma woman, was forcibly sterilized in a state hospital in Eastern Slovakia during a cesarean section. While she was in the height of labor, hospital staff insisted that she sign a consent form for sterilization, without informing her about what the procedure entailed. She was only told that a future pregnancy could kill her and was pressured to immediately undergo the procedure. VC did not understand what she was agreeing to but fearing for her life, she signed the form. After learning that the sterilization was not medically necessary, VC filed a civil lawsuit in Slovakia. All her petitions were rejected, and she filed a complaint against Slovakia at the ECtHR The Court found a violation of Articles 3 and 8 of the ECHR, i.e. the right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment and the right to private and family life respectively. The court noted that sterilization is never a lifesaving procedure and cannot be performed without the full and informed consent of the patient even if doctors believe that future pregnancy may pose a risk to the woman. However, it did not address whether such conduct was a violation of the right to non-discrimination (Article 14), thus falling short of addressing the crux of the problem: racial stereotypes. The ruling is the first of its kind issued by the ECHR, and will have the major effect of bringing justice to the potentially thousands of Roma women who were sterilized without their consent in Central and Eastern Europe.