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The Ethics of Reproductive Rights

buffalo's picture


About a week ago I came across a recent article titled “Uzbekistan’s policy of secretly sterilizing women” (1) and other than the holocaust, I had never heard about governments running forced sterilization programs. After looking at the Wikipedia page (2) I learned that it’s been happening since the early 1900’s in many countries, mainly for the purpose of eugenics. Forced systematic sterilization is now considered a crime against humanity by the International Criminal Court, but it is still happening in Uzbekistan. Many human rights organizations are outraged, and there is pressure on United States, in particular Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton to place sanctions and cut aid to Uzbekistan because of these human rights violations. If you want to sign a petition asking Clinton to ‘end Islam Karimov’s (Uzbekistan’s president) reign and stop the brutal attack on women’ go to (3).

            In 2000 Uzbekistan began undergoing measures to increase sterilization in women who have had around two or three children to limit population growth and improve maternal mortality rates. As of 2009 a policy was made under Presidential Decree PP-1096, On additional measures to protect the health of the mother and child, the formation of a healthy generation with the same goal as the previous sterilizations (2)). The huge issue with these sterilization programs is that there is often no consent and the sterilization is secretly done by removing the uterus or tying the fallopian tubes when a woman has just had a caesarean section. President Karimov claims there are no forced sterilization programs in action, as it isn’t a written law, but reporter Natalia Antelava from BBC World Service has interviewed Uzbek doctors that say otherwise. "Every year we are presented with a plan. Every doctor is told how many women we are expected to give contraception to; how many women are to be sterilized," said a gynecologist from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan (1). Gynecologists are expected to sterilize more women in rural areas; some doctors have quotas of up to eight women per week compared to four women per month in urban settings. It is easiest to remove a uterus or tie fallopian tubes after a woman has had a c-section, and in the past two years c-section rates have risen up to 80% according to a chief surgeon at a hospital near the capital (1).

            Adolt, a woman from Uzbekistan saw a doctor and found out that she had been sterilized after having a c-section when she gave birth to her daughter. "I was shocked. I cried and asked: 'But why? How could they do this?' The doctor said, 'That's the law in Uzbekistan.'" Sterilization is not an official law in Uzbekistan, but doctors are being held responsible for limiting the population, so they will tell uneducated women that having more children is bad for their health, or they will just do the procedure without consent. Tens of thousands of women are being sterilized, and in 2010 the ‘Expert Working Group’ did a seven month study and found that around 80,000 women had been sterilized, although they are not sure of how many were voluntary. In another account, an Uzbek woman was experiencing pain and heavy bleeding after she gave birth to her son, so she went for an ultrasound and found out that her uterus had been removed. "They just said to me, 'What do you need more children for? You already have two,'" she says (1).

            From a feminist perspective I am questioning the ethics of one person having the power to tell another they cannot bear children. I understand there are very serious problems with over-population, but is it ever okay from a feminist prospective for a government have control over the people’s reproductive rights? I’m a firm believer in people having control over their bodies, for example the choice to have an abortion, but is there ever a circumstance so extreme that it would be would be acceptable to put a limit on the number of children people can birth? If a woman’s uterus is removed without her consent it is an obvious violation of human rights, but is the idea of being forbidden from having the amount of children you desire a violation as well? Of course Uzbekistan isn’t the only country trying to limit their population, it’s been done throughout history, and the most current parallel I can draw is to China. China’s One Child Policy, which was implemented in 1979, has prevented approximately 400 million births, and has been very controversial since it’s beginning. Besides the issue of taking away Chinese citizens’ reproductive rights, the One Child Policy has caused a slew of other problems like forced abortion and female infanticide. The law can bend, and in fact only 35% of the country is subject to having only one child (ways to get around it include paying heavy fines, being an ethnic minority, having no siblings, and more (4). I am comfortable saying that the current situation in Uzbekistan is a violation against women, but I’m not positive about the idea of an act more the One Child Policy.

            I attended Margaret Battin’s (a Bryn Mawr alum who currently is a professor in the philosophy department at the University of Utah) thought experiment called “What Were You Thinking When You Were Thinking About Sex (and Reproduction)? A New Look at Contraception. The premise of this thought experiment was having pregnancy be treated as a condition you need immunization for, so in order to get pregnant you would have to make a positive choice to get off birth control, instead of a negative choice to prevent pregnancy. Females would get on birth control as soon as they got their period, and in this thought experiment birth control has no side effects. The main goal of this line of thinking is to curb population growth, only have wanted pregnancies, which gives people more power over their lives. Battin talked about how many in women in developing nations wished they had fewer kids, and perhaps if they did they could devote more time to themselves. The United States is the western country with the highest rates of unwanted pregnancies, which can probably be attributed to our negative outlook on birth control. Women in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden are already living more similarly to this theory, because it is more common for females to get on birth control at a younger age and stay on it until they want to have children. Although in theory this thought experiment seems logical to me, because I plan to stay on birth control until I want children, I’m very hesitant to believe there is a possible way that it could be globally carried out without violating people’s rights.

This thought experiment isn’t the same situation as the One Child Policy, but in order to implement it, governments would need to find a way to get all women on birth control. In the discussion after Battin lectured, the issue came up of how would it be possible for governments to not be completely authoritative and carry out this initiative to get all women on birth control. Battin replied that humans would need to have a complete cultural change, and new outlook on their state of ability to bare children, but eventually it could become a norm. An obvious problem is that this goes against many people’s religious beliefs, so I’m not sure if this could ever work. As for how a government would carry out getting all women on birth control, I’m scarred because of Uzbekistan’s current policies. In Uzbekistan reporters can be arrested or thrown out of the country, and there have been many accounts of torture in prison; scare tactics like these are used to try and keep the forced sterilizations continuing. I do no think governments should have the ability to control women’s reproductive rights, because from a feminist perspective it violates humans’ natural rights and sets up an authoritative governing structure


(1) Antelava, Natalia. "Uzbekistan's Policy of Secretly Sterilising Women." BBC News. BBC, 04 Dec. 2012. Web. 19 Apr. 2012. <>.

(2) "Forced Sterilization." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Apr. 2012. Web. 19 Apr. 2012. <>.


(3) "Hillary Tell Karimov: Stop Murdering Motherhood." The World In Action. Web. 19 Apr. 2012. <>.


(4) "Facts and Details." ONE-CHILD POLICY IN CHINA. Jeffery Hays. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <>.


Anne Dalke's picture

Reproducing Rights?

Well, you've certainly opened a can of worms!

Your essay has three intersecting points: the current practice of forced sterilization in Uzbekistan, China's government enforced One Child Policy, and Battin's thought experiment of making birth control the norm that would need to be chosen against, around the world, in order to get pregnant. What interests me is the spectrum that these three points trace in relation to one another, and the range of choice that they allow, but your analysis collapses them as all (equally?) representing the violation of human rights by an authoritative governing structure.

Do you want to go on philosophizing about these questions? If so, I'd recommend an essay that makes a distinction between the justice of/for rights and the "justice of right relationships":
John Humbach, Towards a Natural Justice of Right Relationships. From Human Rights in Philosophy and Practice, Burton M. Leiser and Tom D. Campbell, eds., 2001. 1-18

as well as a series of articles about the consequences of the practice of sex selection in Asia and the U.S:

Therese Hesketh and Zhu Wei Xing. Abnormal sex ratios in human populations: Causes and consequences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103, 36 (2006): 13271-13275.

Christophe Z. Guilmoto.  "The sex ratio transition in Asia."  Population and Development Review  35, 3 (2009): 510-549.

Generations Ahead, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice. Taking a Stand: Tools for Action on Sex Selection. 2010.

Ruth Padawer. "The Two-Minus-One Pregancy." The New York Times Magazine. August 10, 2011.

We used all these articles in the core course last fall, and they provoked some fascinating conversation about the central ideal around which your paper revolves-- that of individual rights--in relation with larger social questions. What are the consequences of our individual choices, for the cultural structures w/in which we find ourselves?