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Transgender Reproductive Injustice: Modern Eugenics

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November 21, 2012

“Little known fact about Sweden, that supposed bastion of liberal idealism: If a Swedish transgender person wants to legally update their gender on official ID papers, a 1972 law requires them to get both divorced and sterilized first.” Nicole Pasulka, Mother Jones.

Sweden is considered by much of the world to be extremely liberal and gay-friendly, having one of the highest rates of popular support for same-sex marriage, and more than half of the population supports adoption by gay parents.  Given that Sweden is very liberal, it is no surprise that the law is unpopular and that attempts have been made by Sweden’s moderate and liberal parties to see the law repealed.

Greatly due to resistance from a coalition consisting of the country’s small but powerful Christian Democrat party and right-of-center parties, proposals for reform of this law have only been able to eliminate the divorce requirement but continues forced sterilization. This law also prohibits trans Swedes from freezing their sperm or eggs before gender-reassignment surgery.  This means that transgender individuals in Sweden are effectively banned from having biological children.  There’s no way around it.

Not surprisingly, much activism surrounds this issue from many different (and not unrelated) angles – the two most salient to this piece are transgender inequality and reproductive injustice.  Victorian-era writer Mary Ann Evans, better known by her pen name George Eliot, once said “The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men.” Sweden native Love Georg Elfvelin, a trans man – a man considered to be imperfect by many – speaks out against Sweden’s forced sterilization practices:


Sweden’s relationship with compulsory sterilization is not a recent development.  In 1997, journalist Maciej Zaremba revealed that “over 60,000 people between 1935 and 1976 were sterilized against their will, including ‘mixed race individuals,’ single mothers with many children, ‘deviants,’ Gypsies, and ‘vagabonds.'” Now, like then, marginalized groups are forced to make “an impossible choice,” as Love says – to sacrifice their reproductive freedom to gain basic rights.

Forced sterilization, or compulsory sterilization, has been quietly practiced for decades in places considered to be as progressive as Sweden on LGBT rights (e.g., France, Australia, the Netherlands, and a number of U.S. states). Italy and Germany have only recently overturned similar legislation.  Mother Jones has a more comprehensive run-down of countries and their practices on sterilization.  The legislation in Sweden is still under debate and slowly gaining national attention, but Sweden is not alone in this egregious violation of basic human rights.  Throughout history, many countries have practiced forced sterilization on “undesirables.”

The Ole U. S. of A., “Land of the Free,” is not exempt. In January of this year, a North Carolina state task force approved a $50,000 compensation for survivors of a little-known state-run eugenics program. The eugenics movement was rooted in sexism, racism and classism. The program sterilized an estimated 7,600 residents between 1929 and 1974. North Carolina is the first to compensate its victims.

Although the United States does not have a history of or present legislation mandating the forced sterilization of trans people, most states do require proof a gender reassignment surgery in order to change gender on legal identification. The ACLU has found that the definition of “surgical treatment” is vague. Individuals who cannot or don’t want to go through with an expensive medical procedure are left without options, which can create serious personal and professional difficulties and obstacles.

According to Margaret Sanger, “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body.”  Transgender rights and reproductive justice speak to the issue of having autonomy over one’s body.  In the United States and throughout the world, the basic human rights to control one’s body are being withheld and exploited, disproportionately and disparately affecting already marginalized individuals.  Like the eugenics movement, government control over certain bodies still reflects the sexism, classism, racism and transphobia deep-rooted in our society today.

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