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Who decides over Janaina’s body? A case of forced sterilization in Brazil

Forced sterilization is not an issue from the past. As recently as 2018 a judge in Mococa, a small town in São Paulo, Brazil, ordered that Ms. Janaina Quirino be compulsorily sterilized. Español Português

Surgery instruments. Pixabay: Public Domain.

Who should decide over a woman’s body? Who should decide whether a woman ought to be permanently sterilized? Should the woman be entitled to make that decision? Or should the judiciary be the one to make that decision for her? Should her opinion count? Should she be heard?

These might sound outdated questions, issues from the distant past when U.S. federal agencies sterilized Native-American women without their consent in California in the 1900’s, or when women were forcibly sterilized during the Nazi regime, or more recently, during Fujimori’s dictatorship in Peru when indigenous and peasant women were compulsorily sterilized.

However, forced sterilization is not an issue from the past. It continues to happen in several parts of the world and even under the disguise of the rule of law.

As recently as 2018 a judge in Mococa, a small town in São Paulo, Brazil, ordered that Ms. Janaina Quirino be compulsorily sterilized. The male judge based his decision on the male prosecutor’s urgent motion to have her sterilized, “even if such procedure is conducted against her will.”  

The prosecutor argued that Janaina was poor, drug-dependent and already had five children that she could not provide for. He stated that her lifestyle can lead to “irresponsible and unplanned growth of her offspring” and said that because of her condition, she “does not demonstrate any discernment to evaluate the consequences of a gestation.” Before reaching his decision, the judge ordered that Janaina be evaluated by medical staff and social workers.

Throughout the case, she was never interviewed by the judge to inquire whether she wanted to be sterilized. She was never heard.

They ruled in favor of her compulsory sterilization based on her prior attempts to use contraceptives, the number of children that she had, her “complex living situation, that would not allow her to care for another baby” and her drug-dependency, concluding that she “does not demonstrate the minimal conditions of providing proper care for a baby.”

After some motions, the judge ordered Janaina to be compulsorily sterilized citing her conditions of a poor, drug-dependent, mother of five children. As a result, in February 2018, she gave birth and had her tubes ligated. She was permanently sterilized.

Throughout the case, she was never interviewed by the judge to inquire whether she wanted to be sterilized. She was never heard.

Three months later, after Janaina was sterilized, the Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the lower court’s decision was unconstitutional because she had not consented to the sterilization and the compulsory nature of the procedure violated her human rights.  Unfortunately, the decision was too late to prevent Janaina from being forcibly sterilized.

Janaina’s case highlights many problematic aspects of the Brazilian Justice system. She was treated as a defendant, considered incapable of making decisions over her own body, she was not even given counsel and was never heard in court.

Lawyers, doctors, social workers, the experts of the legal system were the ones heard, were the ones making the decision over her body.

It is not that Janaina could not speak; it is not that she was/is mute. Her voice was just muted, it was suffocated and silenced. Only the high hegemonic voices (voices that are embraced, validated and amplified) were heard; the voices of the prosecutor, medical staff, social workers, and the judge.

Janaina’s voice was low, suppressed, silenced and disregarded, it was concealed by the high voices who claimed to know what is best for her.

It is as if she was not even considered a human entitled to rights (human rights, civil rights, and/or women rights), material resources, and social recognition to her subjectivities, identities, epistemologies and spiritualities. It is as if acts of appropriation over her body were/are permitted; others could make decisions for her; she could be sterilized “even if against her will.” 

She experienced multiple oppressions (race, class, gender) and it was this intersection of oppressions that led to the judicial decision to compulsorily sterilize Janaina.

Her body could be disposed of by the state in the manner it deemed fit. Janaina was too poor, too black, too drug-dependent and too woman for her voice to be heard.

She experienced multiple oppressions (race, class, gender) and it was this intersection of oppressions that led to the judicial decision to compulsorily sterilize Janaina.

To emphasize this point, one can simply ask if the judiciary would have appropriated her body in the same manner had she been a white wealthy man.

That is, if she had been a man, would there have been questions about how many children she could have before being sterilized? If she had been white, would the prosecutor have intervened to sterilize her? If she had been an upper-class woman, would she have had counsel?

It is clear that for the judicial apparatus of Mococa, Janaina did not/does not have rights, subjectivities, identities, spiritualities and epistemologies worthy of being recognized and her body could be appropriated, disposed of and compulsorily sterilized under the disguise of rule of law.

This is what I have called fascism over the body and occurs when social actors through legal, financial, military or any other forms of manipulation coerce, impose and/or physically control another party’s body against their will and/or interest.

This is what I have called fascism over the body (expanding on Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ work on the five forms of societal fascism) and occurs when social actors through legal, financial, military or any other forms of manipulation coerce, impose and/or physically control another party’s body against their will and/or interest.

I am, of course, thinking of the judiciary’s decision over Janaina’s body, a decision to permanently sterilize her disregarding her will and interest.

However, I am also referring to the decisions made by generally speaking congressmen or men in the judiciary to prohibit women from aborting, transgender individuals from operating, sex workers from selling sex, etc. As such, it is under the fascism over the body that the judicial apparatus can so easily dispose of Janaina’s body.

And, as long as the judicial apparatus continues to reproduce a sexist, classist and racial system, these historical oppressions will continue to work interconnectedly to deny all Janainas their humanity. 

In fact, since Janaina’s case became public, it has come to light that the same prosecutor and the same judge ordered the sterilization of at least one other woman, Tatiane Dias, under the same arguments and following the same procedure. 

Thus, as long as only the high hegemonic voices of the prosecutor, social workers, medical staff, and the judge are the ones considered relevant, Janaina’s voice will continue not to be heard.

As long as the scientific knowledge prevails over Janaina’s embodied experience, understanding, and knowledge, Janaina’s voice will continue to be disregarded.

As long as we continue to produce people as nonexistent, as long as we continue to have different answers to the questions “who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives?” (Butler, 2008, p. 10), we will continue to reproduce an unjust society and perpetuate the fascism over the body.

About the author

Jessica Carvalho Morris is a lawyer, scholar and human rights defender. She served as executive director of non-for-profit organizations in the U.S. and in Brazil for over 10 years. She is currently pursing a PhD degree in human rights at the Center for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra, Portugal.

Jessica Carvalho Morris es abogada, académica y defensora de los derechos humanos. Ha sido directora ejecutiva de organizaciones sin afán de lucro en los Estados Unidos y en Brasil durante más de 10 años. Actualmente cursa un doctorado en derechos humanos en el Centro de Estudios Sociales de la Universidad de Coimbra, Portugal.


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