Involuntary sterilization of the mentally retarded is stirring bitter controversy and resentment among mentally handicapped people. The recent sterilization of “Infant K,” a ten-year-old mentally handicapped British Columbia girl, appalled the Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded. In an effort to protect the mentally handicapped and their right to have children, the association has gone to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Association will cite new equality provisions under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees equality for the mentally handicapped.
The association is currently appealing a Prince Edward Island court decision which ordered a hysterectomy for a 30-year-old mentally retarded woman in 1970.
Eugene Rossiter of Charlottetown, acting for the woman, identified as “Eve” told the nine-member court that the right to give birth is central to this appeal.
In 1978, Eve’s mother went to court to get an order to have her sterilized because the mother felt Eve would be totally unable to care for a child. In 1979 Mr. Justice Melvin McQuaid would not grant the application. His decision was overruled by the Prince Edward Island Court of Appeal who ordered a hysterectomy for Eve but delayed the order when she and the association decided to appeal. Although Eve was not in court for the first day of the appeal on June 4, several mentally retarded adults were present.
Meanwhile, B.C. lawyer David Vickers is also appealing the decision of the B.C. Court of Appeal that Infant K could be sterilized. Although the association tried to have the sterilization operation delayed the parents had the operation performed in secret. The reason given by Infant K’s parents for such a drastic operation was that Infant K has a hysterical reaction to the sight of blood and would not be able to manage menstruation, which was considered imminent. However, as one advocate for the rights of the mentally handicapped pointed out a more positive response to Infant K’s problem would been counseling to help her overcome the phobia.
The Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded hopes that the outcome of these appeals will settle the rights of the retarded.
The practice of sterilizing mentally handicapped people in Canada is now new. In 1928, Alberta’s Sterilization Act legalized involuntary sterilization upon permission of a Eugenics Board. British Columbia legalized such sterilization in 1933. The practice was allowed because of the belief that the human race could be “purged” of mental retardation by forbidding the retarded to have children. Both laws were repealed in the early 1970s, after scientists found that retarded parents could have normal children. An additional point to note is that large religious communities such as Roman Catholics reject sterilization as an unacceptable solution contrary to the common good. The mentally handicapped are angered that sterilizations have been performed on people who did not understand what was happening to them.
Jacques Pelletier, vice president of the Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded, says that many other mentally handicapped women are threatened with involuntary sterilization.