Sweden’s Only One of 17 Countries That Requires Forced Sterilization of Trans People

In January, the world was outraged when it was discovered that Sweden’s legal system still had a 1972 law on the books requiring trans* individuals to be surgically sterilized. The law was reviewed, and a clause which prohibited trans people from being married was removed, but shockingly the surgery requirement stayed on in the proposal for the new version of the law — gender reassignment surgery is required for legal change of gender, and trans individuals aren’t allowed access to surgery without agreeing to surgical sterilization. Sweden (like many nations, including the US) seems to have a history of forcing sterilization among less “desirable” groups, from Gypsies to single mothers with too many children.

While the horror and disgust at Sweden’s proposed legislation is completely appropriate, many may not be aware that Sweden isn’t alone — according to Mother Jones, there are seventeen European countries which also require surgery and surgical sterilization for trans people.

via motherjones

Aside from the countries like Ireland which don’t even have legal recognition of trans people, many countries require a trans individual to consent to surgery before they can have legal identification that reflects their true gender — surgery that will sterilize them for life. The practice of preventing a group of people from procreating because you find them in some way “deviant” is obviously dehumanizing and indefensible, and recalls the eugenicist ideals of the Third Reich — the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe says “transgender people appear to be the only group in Europe subject to legally prescribed, state enforced sterilization.”  And even if sterilization weren’t required, forcing trans people to undergo gender reassignment surgery before they can have their legal identity reflect their true identity is deeply violating and misunderstands the reality of many trans people, who may not identify as the biological sex they were assigned at birth but still may not want drastic surgery that will permanently alter their bodies. It also leaves out the people who don’t identify within the gender binary completely.

The United States has its own history of problematic approaches to trans healthcare — as Sebastian and Annika wrote about, it’s not as though trans people haven’t had to jump through restrictive and violating hoops to even attempt to get medical care or legal recognition of their identities in the US. But requiring permanent, life-changing surgery and sterilization just for someone to be able to live with dignity and with a legal identity that matches their real one? Especially when even that dehumanizing and unfair experience is restricted to those with economic access to surgery? That’s inexcusable.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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24 Comments

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    As I understand it, what is happening in Sweden is that the ruling Social Democratic party opposes the compulsory sterilisation of trans people. I believe the Prime Minister even called it “a dark chapter in Swedish history”. However, the Christian Democrats have formed a coalition opposing changes to the sterilisation requirement, and so this legislation has been put forward as way of allowing trans people to remain married while not antagonising the right-wing parties”

    But I am not a Swede, so is there anyone out there who can shed some light on this – do the Social Democrats need the Christian Democrats to govern? If a majority of the Riksdag support removing the sterilisation requirement, how come a minority party can block the parliamentary process?

    But yeah, 17 of the 27 member states of the EU require sterilisation and surgery, another 4 don’t recognise trans people at all, and then 1 unknown… those numbers are scary, and suggest to me this is a broader cultural problem, it’s not an isolated instance of bigotry by Sweden.

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      Swede here to help sort some things out.

      The Government of Sweden currently consists of the ‘Coalition’, with the Moderates at the helm alongside the Center Party, the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats. The opposition consists of the Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Leftist party (I know, the name!). Oh and the Swedish Democrats, but we don’t talk about them.

      For about a gazillion years, the only party in opposition to a change in the law has been the Christian Democrats, and since they’re part of a somewhat fragile collaboration, keeping them in check and maintaining the balance has been tricky for the Moderates holding the general majority within the coalition (I call pussy footing).

      I am however very pleased to say that the Christian Democrats have finally gotten their heads out of their arses and come out with a statement in opposition to the law and in favour of overturning it. The statement can be read here but then, you have to know Swedish to understand it:

      http://www.dn.se/debatt/dags-att-avskaffa-kravet-pa-sterilisering-vid-konsbyte

      If people want me to, I can translate it.

      So in conclusion, all parties represented in the Riksdag are now in favour of overturning the law and that should happen fairly soon.

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        Swede to the rescue! Thank you.

        Wow, I sure got it wrong, that is a little embarrassing. However, I’m beginning to think that a lot of the people writing about this story (not you, Rachel!) didn’t bother to familiarise themselves with the Swedish political system at ALL… seems to me that what is being talked about doesn’t actually match up with what is happening in Sweden.

        So what you’re saying is that this thing, it’s not going to be a thing for much longer? If so, then heja Sverige! :D

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          You’re welcome!

          I’ve only been reading about it in Swedish press, so I’m not entirely sure how it’s been covered by foreign media. Overturning the law has been on the books for ages now though and it’s all been down to the opposition from the Christian Democrats. All other parties have been for overturning it for quite some time.

          It’s a shame that it’s taken so long but now everyone’s on board so the law probably won’t last the year.

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            I guess it’s just things like not bothering to find out that Sweden has a fused legislature and executive (i.e. the Government is drawn from the Riksdag) and that governments are formed by coalitions? So it gets reported as if the Christian Democrats aren’t part of the Government, or the Social Democrats are in power because they have the most seats, and so on. Which results in the story misconstruing the whole dynamic of what is happening.

            This is actually a bit of a pet peeve of mine, I observed it quite a lot with foreign coverage of the Australian debates over gay marriage, so I am probably just venting my spleen.

            Anyway I think it’s great that Sweden is going to lead Europe in changing this oppressive law!

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    While I realize this article focuses on Sweden and the EU about forced sterilization, the US is not significantly better. If you want to change your gender marker with Social Security, you must undergo a “sex change surgery” and it must be completed (as bottom surgeries are multi-stage surgeries). In other words, it requires the same thing. Thankfully, trans people can still change their passports and, depending on the state, change their licenses or birth certificates.

    I personally refuse to change the gender marker on government document of mine that requires forced sterilization. I was born in Japan and they require that you’re single, have no children and be sterilized before you can change your info. My birth certificate is never gonna get changed…

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        Most countries around the world will not change legal gender without surgeries. Many countries, like Thailand (which people always want to hold up as such a trans friendly place), will not change legal gender under ANY circumstances. This becomes doubly important because they, like most countries, have national identity cards which must be presented in almost every situation. And, as Wes said, Japan, like a large number of Asian countries, will only change legal gender if you’ve had SRS, have never been married and have no children.

        Some states, like California and Vermont, will now change legal gender without SRS. In many states, trans men can change legal gender after having top surgery. Some states require trans men to have some form of bottom surgery (meta, phallo or, in some, only a hysto). Trans women are required to have SRS in every state (other than California and Vermont) in order to change legal gender. The one bright spot, as Wes mentioned, is that surgery is no longer required to change one’s passport.

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          Actually, multiple other states like Washington and Iowa don’t require any kind of surgery for trans* people to have their legal genders/birth certificate gender markers changed. Many judges in other states that require court orders for gender changes don’t require genital surgery.

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    I’m wondering if these laws are still on the books in so many countries because they haven’t been challenged before the ECtHR yet.. I’m guessing blanket forced sterilisation is a pretty big breach to Art. 8, and one that can’t be justified under the get out clauses. At least, I wouldn’t have thought so..

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    Some good news, apparently the conservative party in Sweden, which was blocking the reform to remove the criteria of sterilization of people who want to change their legal gender, have changed their mind! So activism does work, keep up the good work everyone who helped to make this happen! Fingers crossed this decision will have a domino effect and will bring about change everywhere else. :-D

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      Sweden currently has a four-party coalition government, and one of those parties (Christian Democrats) was against changing he law.

      But hey have now changed their minds, the three highest leaders of the party yesterday (18 Feb) published an article in Dagens Nyheter that it was time to abolish the sterilization requirement.

      “Kristdemoraterna” (the Christian Democrats) is a conservative party, but when speaking of The Conservative Party of Sweden, you usually mean “Moderaterna”.

      bhj.

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    BTW, your “map of the EU” leaves out Finland, Estonia, and most of Sweden.

    I just wanted to comment on this part: “Especially when even that dehumanizing and unfair experience is restricted to those with economic access to surgery?” Not every country is like America. Here in Finland gender reassignment surgery is paid for by the government, so surgery is economically accessible for anyone who is diagnosed with gender dysphoria. I believe it’s the same in Sweden (and probably for some other countries as well), because their welfare system is very similar to ours.

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    I feel like the main reason trans people aren’t recognised in Ireland is because there are so few people who are (about three hundred, apparently).

    Sadly, although the government is attempting to change things by next year, individuals who are married have to divorce their partners in order to legally change their gender, because same-sex marriages aren’t recognised. It’s ridiculous.

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      As it stands I don’t think Ireland has any legal recognition for Trans individuals, however as the result of the Lydia Foy case we are under orders to bring our irish constitutional law inline with european law.

      It has been recommended to follow the British example and introduce gender recognition certificates, which do not replace or change the original birth certificate but they look the same and are legally valid for display at any time that a birth cert is required. Pros of the British system would be that there is no requirement for sexual reassignment surgery or thus sterilization and that your interim gender recognition cert is sufficient grounds for annulment.

      Downside if you wish to remain married and transition, you can’t. You must go through the full process of divorce and civil partnership. There is no carry-over rule even though in the uk the two institutions are effectively the same.

      Has anyone else read that sexual reassignment surgery is legal in Iran? It is considered an acceptable choice for homosexuals who would otherwise be subject to harassment and laws forbidding homosexual acts. Iran performs the second highest number of S.R. surgeries per year in the world.

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    As regard the lack of recognition in Ireland, I would have said it’s because overwhelmingly our elected representatives are reasonably conservative. If they aren’t conservative they’re not in a position of strength or I’m left to choose the best of a poor lot, where issues like LGBT rights have to come further down my list of properties, for example there is one increasingly popular party here who have openly supported gay marriage but will never get my vote due to their other policies. Even when more liberal parties go into coaliton as minority parties, it seems to be the kiss of death.

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    I sure hope that this law is going to be changed very soon. As a german person with strong bonds to Sweden, this is a rather emotional subject for me. For the most part, eugenics are usually connected with Nazi Germany, but Sweden has a rather shocking history of sterilizing people – against their will – too. This went on for a long time after World War III.
    I talked about this with my former swedish teacher because I had to do a presentation on the steriliziation of disabled people in Sweden and she said it’s not something swedish people talk about or even really learn about.

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