- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

OSTRAVA, Czech Republic — Hours after her second child was born, 19-year-old Helena Ferencikova’s joy was dashed. In the recovery room, she discovered that the paper she had signed, not knowing what it said, had allowed doctors to sterilize her.

The Vitkovicka hospital in the country’s northeast says further pregnancies might have killed her. But Miss Ferencikova thinks the reason was her ethnicity — Gypsy.

Now a court ruling and a high-profile official inquiry have backed her up, and the country is having to confront the charge that an abuse many thought had died with communism is still being practiced.

The uproar goes to the broader issue of entrenched European prejudice toward Gypsies — or Roma as they prefer to be called — especially in the former communist bloc, where most of the Continent’s 7 million to 9 million Gypsies are concentrated.

The Czech ombudsman, Otakar Motejl, began investigating accusations that Roma women and girls were being sterilized unknowingly after 10 of them approached him in September 2004. He said he received 87 complaints, nearly all filed by Roma.

“The ombudsman is convinced that in the Czech Republic, the problem of sexual sterilization — carried out either with an unacceptable motivation or illegally — exists, and that Czech society faces the task of coming to grips with this reality,” Mr. Motejl’s 74-page report concludes.

In all the cases, “no consent for sterilization was given that would be free of error and fully unrestrained,” he said. “That’s what all the cases have in common, with no exception at all.”

Under communism, which ended in 1989, sterilization was a semiofficial tool to limit the population of Roma, whose large families were seen as a burden on the state.

Today, doctors defend the procedure on medical grounds, saying it is recommended after a second Caesarean section. In the Ferencikova case, the hospital said both her births had been Caesarean, her uterus was weak and another pregnancy could have ruptured it.

Victims’ advocates counter that the women have a right to choose for themselves, that they are not told their options, and that the practice is rooted in racism.

“I’m convinced that the doctors … are people who have stereotypes and prejudices against Roma, and who don’t consider patients to be their partners but mere subjects,” Mr. Motejl’s deputy, Anna Sabatova, told AP.

‘Sign or you’ll die”

Elena Gorolova, another Roma woman from Ostrava, 220 miles east of Prague, said she was about to give birth to her second son by Caesarean section on Sept. 24, 1990, when she was handed a paper and told by the attending physician to sign it.

“‘Sign this or you’ll die’ — those were the words,” she said.

Doctors “didn’t bother to explain anything to me,” said Miss Gorolova, adding that she didn’t learn what exactly had happened until a pediatrician visited her at home.

“It was pretty sad to learn when you’re 21 that you’ll have no more children,” she said. “What else was it other than racial discrimination against us? They just didn’t want Roma children to be born.”

Miss Gorolova and Miss Ferencikova now belong to the Group of Women Harmed by Sterilization, an 18-month-old support group of three dozen members from the region who meet monthly.

“They suppressed their feelings for years, and many of them haven’t told their husbands and partners about it for fear of breaking up their relationships,” said Kumar Vishwanathan, head of the Ostrava-based Life Together association, which works to reconcile Czech society with the country’s estimated 200,000 to 250,000 Gypsies.

Other states involved

The Czechs are not the only offenders. Savelina Danova of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center said in a telephone interview that scattered cases have been identified in Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, but “nothing to compare to what happened in the Czech Republic or Slovakia,” the two countries that were Czechoslovakia until they split in 1993.

But while the Czech Republic’s ombudsman has confronted the issue head-on, Slovakia has been accused of ducking it. Last year, it announced that an investigation in 2003 had found no crime of genocide was committed in connection with sterilizations. The Roma rights center protested, saying it had never claimed genocide.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, said in November he was “heartened by the apparent seriousness of the [Czech] ombudsman’s investigation into this difficult and sensitive matter,” but dismayed that “similar issues in neighboring Slovakia continue to be met with government denials and stonewalling.” He called the 2003 investigation “deeply flawed.”

Mr. Smith singled out Miss Ferencikova for her courage in going public after she became the first victim to sue the hospital that sterilized her. In November, an Ostrava court ruled that the clinic must offer her a formal apology.

The court rejected her demand for compensation, however, saying a three-year statute of limitations on her case had expired.

Victim, hospital appeal

“We don’t share that view,” said Miss Ferencikova’s legal adviser, Michaela Tomisova. “She will suffer for her entire life. Why is it not possible to compensate her? That’s not right.”

Both Miss Ferencikova and the hospital, which denied wrongdoing, are appealing.

“We regret that the court did not take into consideration the woman’s condition and serious risks posed by another pregnancy,” hospital spokeswoman Simona Souckova said in a statement to the Associated Press.

“They’ve ruined my life,” the slightly built Miss Ferencikova said in an interview, sitting with sons Jan, 4, and Nikolas, 5, in her tidy Ostrava apartment. “I don’t understand why they did it to me. I was so young and healthy.”

Mr. Motejl, the ombudsman, said the law should mandate informed consent and give women seven days to weigh the consequences of sterilization. The Health Ministry should publish a clear description of sterilization and its effects, and doctors should be more forthcoming with their patients, his report added.

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