Netherlands Apologizes for Transgender Sterilizations

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The Dutch flag flies at the parliament in The Hague, Netherlands, March 16, 2017.
© 2017 Daniel Reinhardt/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The Dutch government has apologized to transgender people for previously mandating surgeries, including sterilization, as a prerequisite for legal gender recognition. During a Cabinet meeting this week, government officials also announced plans to compensate people who underwent the operations.

This outcome is good news following years of activism demanding the government acknowledge the harm the country’s sterilization law caused trans people in The Netherlands. In 2013, the Council of Europe called for an end to mandatory sterilization for trans people in member states. A 2014 revision to the Dutch law rolled back the sterilization requirement that had been in place since 1985. This provision had mandated that trans people desiring to change their gender on identification documents had to submit to surgery. The revision allowed for legal gender change through administrative processes.

In 2011, Human Rights Watch documented what it was like for trans people in the Netherlands to live under the mandatory sterilization law. “My wish is to live as a woman, and to be treated and accepted as a woman by others,” said one trans woman. “I am lucky with my body, for me it’s possible to live as a woman without surgery and without hormones. Why then should I subject myself to a surgeon’s scalpel?”

Accessible and transparent legal gender recognition procedures, based on an individual’s self-declaration, are increasingly common around the world. The Netherlands is now taking the next step of apologizing for and compensating those who endured medical harms.

During the cabinet’s formal apology, Ingrid van Engelshoven, the country’s Minister of Education, Culture and Science, said, “the law turned out to be a symbol of social rejection for many, and dreams have been lost as a result of the irreversible sterilization,” and law minister Sander Dekker said “[t]he old law could give transgender people a hard, almost impossible choice.”

The Netherlands’ apology should demonstrate to other countries that acknowledging past harms is part and parcel of providing redress to individuals harmed by coercive and discriminatory laws.