What arguments are there for considering forced sterilization a human rights violation? Rather than not consider it?

I have a hard time in understanding why such being a human rights violation could be anymore correct than it not being a human rights violation.

They possibly rely on that done involuntarily it causes human suffering, which is an okay stance per se. But what I find difficult to understand, why prohibit even well-motivated eugenics? Statistically, I would argue, It'd be easier to motivate sterilization (it leads to more better persons) than not motivate it. And if this hypothesis is true, then considering force sterilization a human rights violation would be weakly accurate.

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    There is no provision in human rights for "you shall suffer for the greater good of humanity", which is essentially what you are proposing. ((plus even benefit is arguable)). Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 11:07
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    Should answers include further lines of thinking, e.g. paralells to police work? Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 11:20
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    The premise that adding a conscious selection process will produce better outcomes is also deeply flawed. Genetic information has a lot of variables, and selecting for traits will move a small subset into the "desired" direction and introduce greater variance in variables not monitored. With current genetics knowledge, even "well-motivated" eugenics is likely to produce a worse result than the natural mate selection which co-evolved with the rest of the human genome. Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 12:44
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    If the question were about mandatory abortion, you could argue that aborting a fetus that would be born into a life of pain would be preserving the fetus' right (if born) to not suffer. I don't think you can push that as far as mandatory sterilization though.
    – user935
    Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 17:00
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    Doesn't the very word "forced" say it all? Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 19:07

7 Answers 7


Forced sterilisation is mutilation, eugenics is inequality

The case is a simple one to make:

  • I own my body
  • By owning my body I have an exclusive right to decide what happens to it; I am the sole person that may exert control over it
  • I therefore I have the right to not have my body altered without my consent

So already here I have the case done. But we can continue:

  • Any permanent alteration which diminishes the function of my body is a mutilation

Forced sterilisation is not only an alteration of my body, but an alteration that is irreversible and that diminishes the function of my body. Therefore it is not only a violation of rights, but one that is considered heinous.

I have a right to not have this happen to me. This right is expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person

Also if we look at article 16 of the UDHR:

  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

  2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

  3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

It is hard(er) to form a family if you have been deprived of the capability to conceive children of your own.

We can take this even further and look at articles 1 and 2 of the UDHR:

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

So when you start talking about "well-motivated eugenics" that "leads to more better persons", you are directly contradicting articles 1 and 2 in that you assume that some persons are "better" than others. Hence the ethical case against eugenics is the very basic principle that everyone is "equal in dignity and rights", "without distinction of any kind". So not only is forced sterilisation a violation of human rights (article 3), you also cannot motivate the application of it without breaking even more rights (article 1 and 2).

So there you have it: forced sterilisation and eugenics are a gross and flagrant violation of human rights, because they break the first three articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 10:42

I would think the most basic argument here is that forced sterilisation is a particular kind of battery - i.e., it involves the forcible damaging of the body, against the will of the victim. So the argument for a right against this practice is essentially just the same argument as the right against any other kind of battery, which is a particular kind of negative right. In this specific case the battery consists of a medical procedure that is specifically designed to destroy one of the capacities of the body (i.e., the capacity to procreate). The procedure is inherently damaging to the body (that is the point of it) and so if it is undertaken forcibly, that would certainly be considered a serious form of battery.

Claims of negative rights are generally rooted in a claim of self-ownership, based on an underlying philosophical theory of property rights and prerogatives. Liberal theories of political philosophy have recognised various negative rights, including a right to be free from battery. At common law, one is recognised to have a right to avoid medical treatment unless one has given informed consent, and any medical procedure undertaken without such consent is regarded as battery. Forced sterilisation is a highly damaging medical procedure and would be considered a serious form of battery.

  • This argument would break down when we consider the arresting and incarceration of criminals. It is certainly against the will of the "victim". Does it means it's battery?
    – vsz
    Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 13:28
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    @vsz Battery is battery, incarceration is not battery. We have a "negative right" against battery at all times, we do not have that against incarceration... only for part of the time.
    – MichaelK
    Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 13:33
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    @vsz: No, since that would be responsive force: battery.
    – Ben
    Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 13:38

First of all it's important to understand that Human Rights are defined by western people who found a common basis in their (our) western beliefs across different (western) religions and ideologies. The philosophical basis for human rights was the natural rights concept which was strong in medieval European philosophy/theology. The important thing to note here is that Human Rights do not specifically build on a consequentialist or utilitarianist basis. If anything natural rights philosophy is the antithesis to those views, as they claim intrinsic rights bestowed on human beings regardless of the consequences.

The human rights concept is inherently prescriptive as it bases itself on rights bestowed rather than rights earned or what's best for the majority. This is often understood in the light of Abrahamic (primarily Christian) religions where those rights were bestowed by God. Humans are God's creations within that line of reasoning and even if you could save two by killing one, it's not the right of a human to decide to kill another.

At the same time the concept of human rights also simply strongly reflects the culture of the authors. It describes the western version of a society which allows different people with different believes to live together. Human Rights could've been written in a non-western culture as well based on the same concept of natural law and yet have looked completely and utterly different.

So, once we look within this shared framework known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights they created there are a couple of things which could make forced sterilization a violation of those concepts.

Forced sterilization used as a punishment against sex offenders:

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In this case it would be argued that this is a degrading punishment. The ability to beget offspring is strongly linked in most cultures with adulthood and gender roles.

Forced sterilization used as a way to control traits in the population: Here it becomes slightly more complex. If the traits in question are from a protected aspect:

race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status

it would be argued to be a form of postponed genocide.

On the other hand it would be more complex to argue such a thing in case of for example a one-child policy which applies to everyone equally (note: this was not the case for China were you could simply pay a fine thus you end up with selecting for poverty). In Resolution XVIII from 1968 there was proclamation at the International Conference on Human Rights that

Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children.

But this was not a part of the initial definition of human rights. Why was this resolution agreed upon? Essentially because those people at that conference were convinced that it wasn't right according to their respective cultures and beliefs. The extent to which this was descriptive (we don't do this in our western cultures, thus it's wrong) and the extent to which this was an ethical or religious consideration is impossible to figure out at this point.


If we look into any benefits for forceful sterilization, they never apply to the person being sterilized. Benefits (supposedly) apply only to the children not being born and thus minimize their (expected) suffering or to the rest of the society by being bettered via elimination of future "persons of negative value".

On the other hand, human rights are personal rights.They are not interpreted in the context of bettering the lives of a group on average, but take every single person under consideration separately.

Therefore, as seen from human rights point of view, forced sterilization has no benefits whatsoever, only drawbacks already described here. That's why it cannot be justified.

Sources for "human rights are personal":

"Human rights are commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being." "Human rights : reference handbook", Gudrún D. Gudmindsdóttir

U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights - in no place it grants rights to a group or whole humanity, only to individuals ("everyone").

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    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 12:55

"It'd be easier to motivate sterilization (it leads to more better persons) than not motivate it."

So does genocide.

The problem occurs in that someone decides that they have the right to class people into better - meaning having more significant right to exist than others.


Eugenics is from two Greek roots: eu for good and gen for heredity. "Well-motivated eugenics" is redundant!

I think that your question raises an excellent point about liberal civilization, though. Perhaps we can all agree on stopping eugenics, but in light of the fact that opposition to eugenics must come from your personal moral framework, I think it's unlikely we can all agree on why to oppose eugenics.

But in liberal civilization we have a way of working together toward common goals while tolerating our differences. That's why if you are against eugenics, I'm with you no matter what you believe.

In any case, it's not pointless to talk about it: if you believe in individual human rights, I would love to show you why that makes eugenics out to be bad. And if you believe eugenics could be good, I would love to show you how that contradicts something else you might believe about rights.

While I suppose that individual human rights is the best explanation for rights-based thinking, I can't make you believe in individual human rights. So if you hold eugenics up high enough, there's no rational argument that could take that away.

I do hope, though, that the paradoxes entailed by the thought that human rights are non-individual will cause you to reconsider this position.

  • " I think it's unlikely we can all agree on why to do so". Why do you claim that? What is your motivation for claiming it? The answer could be improved by including it.
    – MichaelK
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 11:13

I like several of the answers already given. I think MichaelK's answer is probably sufficient. But I had a couple additional points.

Forced anything implies some entity to do the forcing, and some entity besides the person being forced to make the choice. Putting that choice outside the individual means that there is an entity in society that is prior to the individual. Assigning the ability to enforce the choice means that entity has the ability to make vital choices about the individual and enforce them. Any such entity would have vast potential for harm, in at least equal measure to the degree of good it could possibly produce. We should take great care before we permit any such entity to exist. We should make extreme effort to be sure we want that power and authority in society before we consent to it.

But this is something for which it is extremely difficult to be sure we actually are correct in such choices. (Even supposing that this entity acts with best interests of society as the goal, never becoming corrupt, never acting for vindictive or petty or ambitious or insane reasons.)

Should we seek to eliminate, for example, the gene for sickle cell anemia? The reason this gene exists is (if I recall correctly) it provides some degree of resistance to malaria when the individual has the gene from only one parent. If we remove this gene then maybe everybody in the tropics dies of malaria in the next generation.

How can we be confident that any given change to our genetics is in fact preferable? Maybe in a very few cases we can be confident that certain genes can be safely dispensed with. Possibly hemophilia. Possibly some other genetic diseases, such as things that cause people to die at age 12 or the like.

But if we start messing with genetics, how can we be sure that any given change is in fact desirable? Is it really the case that a genetic predisposition to obsessive compulsion should be eliminated? How about addictive behavior? How about the tendency to "zone out" when the environment is a bit dull and repetitive?

I think there's a huge possibility that we would wind up enforcing some person's (or some small group's) whims and bigotry. Oh, this person's too fat, too skinny, can't do math well enough, can't do enough push-ups, whatever, off to the sterilizatorium he goes. Oh no! He's the kind of person who drives ALL the way to the end of the on-ramp then dives into traffic! Ahhhh! No gonads for YOU!

From an entirely other aspect: It's quite likely that we will very presently be able to control which genes an adult passes to children. Even be able to make corrections of a few genetic flaws. So hemophilia should be entirely detectable in carriers, and could be eliminated from progeny. And not too expensively. So we could move over to tech that won't require sterilization of anybody, but will still achieve nearly the same proposed benefits. At present the tech only allows one gene to be modified, and only in very limited ways. But technological advances in this area do seem to be advancing rapidly. Probably in 10 years we should be able to dial up what we want in children.

That will be something that needs a lot of careful thought. Maybe we want to dial up a few really smart kids and let them think it through.

  • "Putting that choice outside the individual means that there is an entity in society that is prior to the individual.". Isn't this how repr. government works?
    – mavavilj
    Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 7:41
  • In principle, no. Occasionally, yes. It's one reason why we get concerned when government has (takes, is given) power to do stuff to us, rather than keep us from doing stuff to others. "To secure these rights..." yada yada. Not "to make sure you do everything you are supposed to."
    – user34017
    Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 15:38

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