The law in Sweden that for more than 30 years had required transgender people to undergo sterilization before they could be legally recognized as another gender has been deemed unconstitutional and in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
A year ago, the government was unable to repeal the law because a small conservative group managed to block the effort. International human rights activists fought back, gaining media attention and putting significant pressure on the country. The European Council’s Human Rights Commissioner declared that the law did in fact violate human rights, and an amendment was proposed by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare.
Finnish center-right MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen told the European Parliament LGBT Intergroup, “This isn’t about LGBT rights; it’s about human rights and torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”
Green MEP from Spain, Raül Romeva i Rueda, added: “The government’s decision is rather surprising: forcibly sterilising transgender people is recognised as inhumane across the political spectrum. It’s barbaric, outdated and highly unnecessary—not to mention against Sweden’s human rights commitments.”
Amanda Brihed, who underwent forced sterilization when she had male-to-female realignment, has become a public advocate for transgender rights. In a recent interview with Vice, she described the social environment transgender people face in Sweden.
“We still aren't considered to be human beings. Our protection against discrimination, threats, violence and hate-crimes is still very limited. We're not even protected in labor laws. Forced sterilization is just the tip of an iceberg.”
Brihed is one of more than 500 people who were sterilized under Sweden’s law; she is part of the class action and is hoping to receive some compensation from the state. Ulrika Westerlund, head of the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights, has suggested that 200,000 kronor ($31,000) per person would be an acceptable amount. In 1999, Sweden offered 175,000 kroner to those who had been forcibly sterilized under a eugenics program that wasn’t abolished until 1996.
In the United States, though sterilization is not required before gender reassignment surgery, efforts to monetarily compensate victims of state-sponsored eugenic sterilization have thus far hit dead ends. Are there lessons to be learned from the successes in Sweden?
The fight for humane treatment of a minority group must walk the fine line of simultaneously voicing the concern of one specific group (thus outlining the boundaries of what constitutes that group) while making the case that there is no fundamental difference between that group and the human community at large; that they are just as deserving of human rights as others. The protests in Sweden and around the world against the dehumanization of transgender people have walked this line with deft skill.
The new ruling in Sweden is a reminder of the power of the human rights framework. The United States has historically not given much weight to international human rights conventions and has lagged on establishing guidelines for new technologies, medicines, and practices.
Perhaps it is time for a change.