For Gypsies, Eugenics is a Modern Problem / Czech Practice Dates to Soviet Era

By Mindy Kay Bricker

PRAGUE ( — Gypsy women who say they were sterilized against their will by Czech doctors were heartened last December when a government investigator released a study that largely vindicated their claims.

Six months later, however, advocates for Gypsies — known more formally as Roma — say the practice is continuing, and are dismayed by what they consider only token steps by Czech officials to stop it.

“There’s been basically dead silence at the level of elites,” said Claude Cahn, program director of the European Roma Rights Center, an advocacy group based in Budapest.

Officials at the Health Ministry acknowledge the problem, but have not taken responsibility.

“[Sterilization] was by no means a national policy, but errors [were] committed by individual medical facilities,” said Jaroslav Strof, the Health Ministry’s director of healthcare and pharmacy, in an e-mailed statement.

Yet the Czech government’s independent ombudsman, Otakar Motejl, released a detailed report last year charging that “potentially problematic” sterilizations of Roma women have been public knowledge for more than 15 years.

In the report, Motejl identified dozens of cases of coercive sterilization between 1979 and 2001, and called for criminal investigations and possible prosecution against several health care workers and administrators.

Protest and Advocacy
In Prague, Lucie Rybova, secretary of the government’s Biomedicine and Human Rights Committee, said her department considers Roma sterilization “a pressing issue,” but said that “there is no further official Czech investigation into this.”

Rybova, who stressed that she does not speak officially for the government, said her own office has called for the establishment of a special committee that would investigate any future claims of sterilization.

She also said a proposal by her office to implement reforms suggested by the ombudsman has been blocked by the Health and Justice ministries, and that a revised plan will take several months to develop.

Many in the Romani community — see protest and advocacy as the only real way to move this government process forward.

In Ostrava, the third largest city in the Czech Republic and a former hub of industry during the Soviet era, ethnic Roma women have been gathering for more than three years to share stories and publicize their plight.

At a meeting in February, Natasa Botosova, 39, said she was sterilized in 1991, after giving birth to her fourth child.

“The doctors ruined my life,” she said.

She and her peers, known collectively as the Group of Women Harmed by Sterilization, say that the government is not taking them seriously.

Botosova, as well as others from Ostrava, filed 87 claims with the ombudsman, instigating his investigation and final report.

Kumar Vishwanathan, director of Life Together, a Roma rights organization, said that it was not easy for the women to come forward and talk about being sterilized.

Eventually, he said, “they realized ‘it’s not just my problem alone.'”

After sharing their stories, the women of the Ostrava group found their experiences were nearly identical.

Most were given a caesarean section, and then were told they needed to be sterilized.

Botosova, like the others, said she was given paperwork to sign within minutes of delivering her child, a practice the ombudsman described as “indefensible.”

As many Romani communities are plagued by poverty and illiteracy, some of the women signed without understanding what the consent forms meant.

Others, who could read, nonetheless said they trusted the doctors.

But neither Botosova nor the other 12 women who attended the February meeting in Ostrava say they understood that “sterilization” meant that getting a tubal ligation, preventing them from ever giving birth again.

All said they understood sterilization to be a sort of post-delivery “cleaning.”

Their experiences resonate throughout the report, which found that Romani women were given “incomplete and misleading” information that led them to believe incorrectly that sterilization was an “urgent and life-saving treatment.”

The ombudsman also documented cases in which hospitals had destroyed evidence, making it impossible to confirm whether consent was freely given.

“Invisible wall”
The practice of coercive sterilization has roots in the eugenics movement that flourished in Europe and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Motejl’s report includes a 20-page digression on eugenics and notes the founding of the Czech Eugenics Society in 1915.

During World War II, Carl Clauberg, a former professor of obstetrics at the University of Konigsberg, conducted sterilization experiments at Germany’s Ravensbruck concentration camp, specifically targeting Roma women.

In 1971 the Soviet client government of the former Czechoslovakia issued a directive permitting gynecologists to sterilize Romani women, and offering financial incentives to those who did so.

The policy was condemned as genocide in 1979 by the human rights group Charter 77, but continued through the “Velvet Revolution” that toppled communism in 1989.

Today, the human rights debate persists along with the practice of sterilization.

Katerina Jacques, a Green Party member and director of the government’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunities department, said in an e-mail that she joined an advisory board on Roma sterilization that the Health Ministry convened at the request of Motejl.

She quickly grew frustrated, and said that the board seemed to have “an invisible wall between the medical view of the problem and a legal or human rights view.”

She resigned in February, two months after the release of the ombudsman’s report, saying that her colleagues on the board did not listen to her.

“My activities in the committee were made difficult and my objections were not reflected upon,” she said.

She noted that the board did eventually propose modifying the law governing sterilization, which currently does not ensure that women are informed of the risks of the procedure or alternatives to it.

Motejl, whose official title is the Public Defender of Rights, said in his report that his authority was limited to addressing citizen grievances against government officials and institutions, not doctors and hospitals, which are nongovernmental authorities.

But he said that sterilization was a “burning issue” that was being neglected, giving him the moral imperative to document the cases for the public record, and make recommendations for redress.

Though Cahn and other Romani advocates considered the ombudsman’s report a small victory months ago, they fear there will be no follow-up investigations for future sterilization claims.

“We would like to see the Prime Minister’s office take this matter up directly,” Cahn wrote in an e-mail. “It is an area where top-level leadership is needed.”

For Vishwanathan, the issue is not just a matter of Romani women being sterilized — it’s about informed consent, “an issue that affects every citizen in this country,” he said.

“There has been no public debate, nothing about it,” he said. “It’s very disappointing.”

Mindy Kay Bricker, a freelance writer based in Prague, is a correspondent for Women’s eNews and a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor. Additional reporting by Josh Wilson.

18 thoughts on “For Gypsies, Eugenics is a Modern Problem / Czech Practice Dates to Soviet Era

  1. Although I sympatize with the Roma women, I’m more concerned with the wellfare of their children. They live in substandard conditions and get little to no education. The Roma women’s values are such, that if they use any kind of birth control, they are considered evil or lose. One woman on wellfare will easily have up to 20 children. There’s little to no chance that these children will become contributing members of society. They receive social benefits based on how many children they have. With each child, they receive more benefits and there’s no cap on the number. I don’t endorse forced sterilazation, but there must be another solution to this problem. Perhaps,a financial benefit for every child they don’t have.
    Z. Simpson

  2. “I don’t endorse forced sterilazation, but” The “but” says it all. There seems to be no condemation form Z. Simpson at all here. The Roma are human beings who have a right to life and rights to all aspects of life in Europe like any other citizen.

    And the reason some Roma children don’t get the chance to contribute to society is racism and marginalisation, whith little or no chance of a decent education (especially in the Czech Rep. with 75% of Roma kids being segregated and deemed retarded).

    Isntead of blaming Roma people, blame society for excluding them and this is why there are so many problems in the first place!

  3. I agree totally with Mark on this though I haven’t looked for extra information based on this topic.

  4. So the reason the Roma have become an underclass in *every* society into which they have entered is because *all* of these societies are racist and exclusionary?

  5. Whether or not the Roma have become an “underclasss”, or whether or not their increasing population or poverty level have become a “problem”, is irrelevant to the point in question. Roma women — or any women — should never ever for any reason be subjected to sterilization procedures without their knowledge and informed consent. Period.

  6. Forced Sterilization is evil. Pretty simple.

    Socialism is evil. pretty simple.

    Welfare wont keep people from having kids but it takes away the money incentive.

    Where I come from we pay for our own children.

  7. Native American women, my tribe included, were also forced to be sterilized, particularly in the first part of the 20th century. And for the same reason: they were considered a lower class in society & their bloodline a pollutant to the “superior” white races that were the majority in New England at that time (and are still). Those in power wanted to rid America of our inferior genes. This eugenics program curbed & reversed population growth of the already shrinking tribes in New England. Funny thing is, our tribe were also labeled “gypsies” in New England because of their more nomadic & seasonal way of living.

    No group of people should be denied rights to have offspring. It is barbaric & primitive…no matter what they call it or how they go about it. And it assumes that one race/group/people is BETTER and have MORE RIGHTS than another group of human beings. It’s a sick practice. Period.

  8. It’s not right to sterilize.

    It’s also not right to take a country’s welfare money for huge families of Roma who don’t contribute to society. I was robbed by Roma women in Slovakia. These are the type of people we want to let flourish?

  9. I have very mixed feelings about this article. I was in Sophia, Bulgaria in 1994 with a humanitarian group. I went into many orphanages, one was in a remote community called “Roma”. I have never been the same since. What I saw changed my life forever. (I, “by the way”, have had a tubal ligation, after having my fourth child. My life certainly has not been ruined.) In the orphanages I saw virtually hundreds of children, (mostly gypsy). I went to a remote town called “Roma”. In the orphanage in Roma most of the children were malnourished. They were all were filthy. The whole time I was there I saw three staff. Later I went to a “hospital” in another town where mentally and physically disabled child were cared for and the conditions of that building were completely inhumane. I have pictures to prove it. While I was in Sophia the police picked up a three year old child who had simply been abandoned on the street.

    If we are going to talk about inhumane and violation of human rights, I think there need to be some in depth studies done by people like Amnesty Int’l, to find out what happens to the children from these orphanages. I have heard that there are no opportunities for them and many turn to drugs, suicide and prostitution, and in this day and age who knows what all else. People I know who tried to adopt were turned down even after they paid lawyers exhorbatent amounts of money.

    I am not a politician or a medical person. I am just an ordinary Canadian citizen who decided to step out of her comfort zone. It is my opinion that the whole problem with the state of gypsy people, their educational opportunities and quality of life in eastern Europe, needs to be addressed by the United Nations.

  10. I live in Brno,/Moravia/ where gypsies are roaming streets and robbing people.These parasites should be exterminated entirely.They are like viruses,good for nothing and dangerous to higher organisms,like a white race.

  11. Dear Wendy,

    Yes, the comment by Mr. Pospichal is extremely problematic. While we do not want to be censors, neither do we want to host hate speech.

    We consulted with our editorial advisers, and got a variety of responses:

    * Most said the post should be deleted completely, since the comment doesn’t contribute to the discussion, and IS defamatory. They also said we shouldn’t worry about censorship, because Newsdesk is not a government agency. But, we are a public charity under 501(c)(3) tax law, so that extra burden may still be upon us.

    * They also advised that this is a good opportunity to flesh out our posting policy, and define more clearly what is not allowed. Originally, we thought simplicity would be fine: Anything that is defamatory or not substantive can be deleted any time. But we can be more specific, and it looks like that’s the direction we’re going to go.

    * One suggested that the offensive comment could be preserved to further the conversation about what IS permissible in a posting. I see an added advantage in that the posting clearly illustrates the anti-Roma bias in some communities. The problem is, what if other racists start posting hateful comments? They’d have to be deleted. One is all it would take to make the point.

    * Finally, one of our advisers in the UK provided a link to an editorial about a similar dilemma faced by the BBC over offensive online comments on articles covering Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Read that here:

    This is all food for thought. Your comments and discussion are welcome. We’ll make a final decision in the next week.

  12. In Canada we have laws that prevent the publication of hate dogma. How could we survive as a deeply diverse society if we didn’t respect the lives and rights of those who are not exactly like we are. “Shame on you” Mr. Pospichal. I truly hope and pray you change your way of thinking.

  13. Forced sterilization for anyone is obviously inhuman and should not be permitted. Period.
    As far a Gypsies in the Czech Repblic are concerned, a majority of them earn or supplement their income by stealing, and there should be some studies as to why? When I was a kid, long long time ago in pre-Communist Czechoslovakia, usually Gypsies were roaming the countryside in their wagons, staying a few days here and there. They would read tarrot cards, play fiery gypsy music on their violins, do some part-time help, and yes, they would steal. But they moved on. The Communists forced them to live in subsidized housing areas and that did not intergrate them into mainstream
    society. Now there is United Europe, they could wander at will again, if that’s what they prefer; if any want to settle, however, they should have the same schooling and opportunities as anyone else.

  14. I am glad you did not erase the post by Pospichal because the rest of the world needs to know the truth about this country (i.e. the Czech Republic). I can understand that it is uncomfortable for you to read it but how else will you understand what is happening in a European Union country, when the EU wants to pretend they don’t see. The truth is that what Pospichal said is the opinion of most people and most say it openly every day. But they say it in Czech, which not many foreigners understand very well. My husband and I live near Prague and have very liberal, educated friends. We decided last year to track how often we heard racist speech in our normal social interactions. We found that 80 percent of the time there was a racist reference to Roma in any conversation or social interaction that lasted more than one hour. I am not exaggerating. These were not conversations that had anything to do with racial issues. These were simply the neighborhood grill on a Saturday afternoon and similar activities. Racist behavior and language is so pervasive that it is inescapable. Not long ago, I saw a drunk man roughly through two Romani school children off of a street car. The other passengers just ignored the incident. Another time, I took two Romani teenagers from a children’s home, who had won a poetry competition, to a concert in Prague. They were dressed far better than most teenagers, in very nice stylish clothes, and still I saw two separate groups of people spit at them on the street in the tourist district in downtown Prague (the least likely place for this to happen). This is why, I am glad you did not delete that post. Everyone should know and let Czechs feel the disgust of the world.

  15. Compulsory sterilization – Other countries

    Compulsory sterilization Other countries Eugenics programs including forced sterilization existed in most Northern European countries, as well as other more or less Protestant countries. Some programs, such as Canada’s and Sweden’s,…

  16. I grew up in Communist Romania. Born and raised in a white family, I am well read, I had/have a stable and comfortable home and food on the table etc. And yet, I stole. My best friend stole, and other friends of mine did as well. There used to be an apple orchard across the street from my house, and the children would raid it periodically to steal apples. My friend stole jewelry from the market place. Now all this happened for a reason: we didn’t have all those things. To use an appropriate metaphor, those things were “the forbidden fruit.”

    We had Roma neighbors in my grandparents’ village. Many of them were very honorable and nice people. My grandmother used to work the field together with Roma women. Often I would see a Roma child dressed poorly and being dirty, but so was I. In the countryside, when you have to work in the field through the day, you don’t really stop to take showers and to beautify.

    Many of my graduate student peers from Romania (and I emphasize their educational background) still tell me, “we’re sorry for tigani (Gypsy) but if you live in Bucharest, you wouldn’t like them either.” Well, if my peers lived in my apartment building, they wouldn’t like some of my white American neighbors either. Let me explain: I posted an announcement one day asking people to collect their snail mail and not dispose of it on top of the mailboxes or litter the floor because it is a responsibility we all have as co-inhabitants. Two days after someone scribbled on my note a very bad word. Now all these “criminal” acts that we feel so comfortable blaming oppressed minorities for do happen in all communities. The difference is that while the Roma child you see stealing may have not had a chance to go to school or that his parents may have not received welfare or a job to afford schooling for their children, my neighbor did. Now we can judge the ethical load of various “criminal” gestures as we like (my neighbor didn’t steal anything, he swore), but one thing is true: we will always notice the bad with someone else and not with us. How many of us give examples of great things that a Roma person did? No matter what we do, we keep speaking on behalf of the Roma and we keep silencing them. What would we do if we were to be continuously silenced?

  17. Are you worried about gypsy human rights? Just wait. You are going to be worried about your own pretty soon.
    BTW this is not an opinion, this is happening as i write.