Will new forms educate doctors – or promote sterilization of people with disabilities?

A subcommittee working for the Washington Courts is creating new model forms for use in guardianships. They are now considering forms for sterilization, and are asking for comments from the public.

Why sterilization? Members of the subcommittee report that some doctors have performed sterilizations on people who are unable to consent. The doctors have done so illegally, without a court order permitting the operation. Where a person doesn’t have the ability to consent to a procedure, doctors often look to family or guardians for consent. In some cases, guardians or family members can do this. These doctors apparently don’t understand that a court order is required, not just the permission of a guardian or family member.

Why is a court order required? Thousands of people with disabilities were sterilized during the twentieth century due to prejudice, ignorance, and malice. This was done with the complicity of the courts and the law. In 1980, the Washington State’s Supreme Court recognized the injustice that deprived so many people of their fundamental right to parent, in the case of In re the Guardianship of Hayes. The court ruled that guardians cannot consent to sterilization; a court order is required. Before granting a sterilization request, the judge must be convinced on seven difficult-to-prove factors at a very high standard of proof – “clear and cogent evidence”.

Why create forms? The subcommittee is proposing the creation of these legal forms as part of their effort to educate the medical community about the need for a court process prior to sterilizing individuals. They believe the forms could also educate judges and lawyers on the process.

What is wrong with creating forms? Disability Rights Washington believes that the creation of these forms will make it much more likely that guardians and others will seek sterilizations. The forms won’t educate the medical community, because the doctors asked to perform illegal sterilizations won’t see the forms. They can therefore have no value as an educational tool. Instead, the forms will likely result in more sterilizations. The forms are relatively short, requiring “yes” or “no” responses, with some short questions. This can transform what should be a very careful and deliberate process into a routine, easy matter.

What can you do? The Subcommittee is requesting your comments on the questions:

  • Should they develop sterilization forms?
  • How can information about the law be shared with medical practitioners?
  • Should the Legislature act on this?

Please send your comments to Commissioner Rebekah Zinn, Washington State Pattern Forms Committee Chair at zinnr@co.thurston.wa.us by Wednesday, January 31.

Disability Rights Washington is seeking people and organizations interested in signing on in support of our letter to Commissioner Zinn. If you or your organization are interested in signing on to Disability Rights Washington’s letter, please email David Lord, Director of Public Policy at davidl@dr-wa.org by 5:00 PM on Tuesday, January 30.

Related Links

Download .DOCX of Commissioner Zinn’s Letter

Download .DOCX of DRW’s Letter to Commissioner Zinn

ACLU of Washington: Having a Disability Shouldn’t Mean You Can’t Have a Baby by Ivanova Smith

ACLU: Washington State May Make it Easier to Sterilize People With Disabilities by Ari Ne’eman