Sterilsation is again being recommended as a solution to bad parenting. It's obscene, stupid and is another stigma attached to struggling parents by those devoid of compassion

It's an endlessly hideous and stupid suggestion, one that recalls the worst abuses of state power, yet it somehow seems to be acceptable as part of our public debate. That's right, I'm talking about paying "bad parents" to be sterilised.

David Garrett, the ACT MP, has suggested offering "abusive parents" thousands of dollars to be voluntarily sterilised, according to reports on Radio New Zealand this morning. To be specific, he's suggested the amount of $5,000. It is, he says, his own view, not ACT party policy.

For a man who represents a party of liberty and choice, it's the rankest of all rank hypocrisy. What greater infringement of individual liberty is there than taking a persons right to a family, to a child?

Somehow, in his muddled ideology, it's wrong for the state to run hospitals, but it's a good idea for the state to give people money to be sterilised (presumably in privately owned hospitals). The dots just aren't connecting in his thinking.

Yet it's not the first time a politician has raised the idea; not even the first time in the past six months. Whanganui mayor Michael Laws suggested much the same thing last October, saying:

"If we gave $10,000 to certain people and said 'we'll voluntarily sterilise you' then all of society would be better off. There'd be less dead children and less social problems.

"Do we really expect these children to become doctors or brain surgeons?"

$10,000? At least Laws isn't as cheap as Garret when it comes to human life. But the simple, insulting conclusion that an abused child can never amount to anything is as callous as Garrett, and I'm sure has been disproved in millions of lives around the world.

Laws has since denied those quotes from the DominionPost on TV3 (although TV3 should learn what "refutes" means), although reportedly he's said similar things on radio. That link in the last sentence is to Kiwiblog, where it also seems to be ok to support not only 'voluntary' sterilisation, but a programme run by a non-government organisation. What is it with the Right in New Zealand that their belief in individual liberty only extends to people they approve of? But that's another story...

What galls me is that these appalling solutions to social woes get taken seriously. I remember a column in the New Zealand Herald in 2001 making much the same argument.

Anyone with any sense of justice, liberty and faith in humanity should rail against this thinking. Not that it's exclusive to New Zealand of course.

Garrett and the like are careful to talk about "voluntary sterilisation" because "compulsory sterilisation" was what the Nazis did as part of their eugenics campaign and has been declared a crime against humanity. Japan tried it, as did the United States and many European countries. Winston Churchill even once introduced a bill that included forced sterilisation of "mental degenerates". But the line between choice and compulsion is a fine one.

Given that child abuse statistics show more abuse by parents with less money, the financial pressure on those parents to sacrifice their fertility for a few grand must be a huge concern. The potential for a parent to 'volunteer' in desperation only to regret the decision later is enormous.

Although I haven't looked in-depth at this, it seems some European countries have faced court cases and compensation payments after what have been ruled to be "coercive sterilisations".

But that's only the start of the arguments against. What about the price you put on human life? What about the abuse of the system by parents who aren't going to have any more children anyway? What about the permanence of the choice that assumes struggling parents can't learn, improve and have another chance?

How do you get 'informed consent'? How do you define an "abusive parent"? Do they need a conviction? Would that be a conviction under the smacking legislation, or is an assault conviction required?

And those are all problems off the top of my head, before breakfast.

What perhaps sticks in my craw the most is that it's all about lazy blame. According to Garrett's thinking bad parents – parents who reach the end of their tether and snap – are damned.

In the past, governments sterilised a whole range of people deemed likely to be bad parents, including the handicapped and those with genetic diseases. Today, even Garrett wouldn't suggest offering cash to sterilise a handicapped New Zealander, or someone with a genetic heart condition, or perhaps someone with diabetes. Yet somehow it's ok to ostracise and condemn "abusive parents", as if most of them aren't just bowing under the weight of life's burden's. Whether they're victims of abuse themselves, victims of poverty, victims of our wealth-obsessed society that undermines supportive communities, victims of the arrogance of people like Garrett. None of that matters, they deserve no compassion. Let's sterilise them once and for all so that we don't have to take any responsibility ourselves.

For me, an abused child is something we all deserve blame for; an abused child is a failure of the state, of the family, of the community, of the society, not just the parents.

Of course, of course a parent who abuses their children must be held accountable; of course their must be social censure and consequences. Please don't waste your outrage thinking that I'm defending child abuse.

But let's not pretend this is black and white and straightforward. We all know the links between child abuse and poverty, between child abuse and cyclical family violence and so on. It's not merely a matter of choice.

If it was that simple, Garrett should also support sterilisation payments for those potential parents suffering from diabetes who refuse to change their diets, or for smokers or drinkers who are considering having another child, or anybody who "chooses" to harm their child. And what about those suffering from mental illness? They were targeted in the past, and given the chance of inherited mental illnesses, why take the risk? Why not think of the good of the child?

Exactly. Because it's obscene and tramples on so many human rights it's ridiculous. Please, let's say this as clearly as we can. Organised, financially-induced sterilisation is repugnant and should never be seen in this country.

Comments (23)

by Tim Watkin on March 04, 2010
Tim Watkin

David Garret wrote yesterday about potentially requiring parents to have a licence to have children on his blog, here

The Kiwiblog link in the post includes the comments by Garrett that, seemingly, sparked this story.

by Joshua Grainger on March 04, 2010
Joshua Grainger

To me the implicit suggestion in his comments is not so much about the child abusers in society, but rather the poor. The dirty underclass. After all, $5000 is going to have a much higher comparative worth to a poor family or person than it would to, say, people in the top tax bracket. I come from a lower class solo parent family, (state housing, welfare, all that good stuff) and I predict that if $5000 was given to my mother she would have seriously thought about taking this offer up. Additionally, need I even comment on Michael Law's Social Darwinist comments?

by r0b on March 04, 2010

Tim, I think IrishBill at The Standard deserves the credit for being first to lift this story out of the Kiwi Blog comments section - see Garrett: Sterilise the poor.

by DeepRed on March 04, 2010

At best, calls for sterilisation are an admission of defeat. At worst, there's little to stop it from being extended to those the state simply takes a disliking to.

by Tim Watkin on March 04, 2010
Tim Watkin

Rob... yep, I haven't seen anything earlier than 3pm yesterday, so kudos to IrishBill for this post. Interesting that discussion on the blogs drew out a position from a politician that was not previously known, although I'm wondering why David F ran such a nasty piece in the first place.  

Also interesting to see the point made in IrishBill's comments that Macsyna King, who Garrett plucks out as his example of bad parenting, was never charged by police, let alone found guilty. So on what grounds would he have offered her sterilisation?

by Graeme Edgeler on March 04, 2010
Graeme Edgeler

I'm wondering why David F ran such a nasty piece in the first place.

He didn't. Well, not really. Other people, including someone who goes by the name Jadis, have posting privileges on the site. Jadis wrote this post.

by Andrew Geddis on March 04, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Would that be a conviction under the smacking legislation, or is an assault conviction required?

Actually, there is no such thing as "a conviction under the smacking legislation". A conviction for "smacking" would be a conviction for assault (more likely  a conviction for an assault on a child). What the "anti-smacking law" did was remove a defence to such charges from the Crimes Act, not create any new offences.

What I want to know is why Dave G doesn't mix this proposal into his three-strike law ... rather than face the expense of locking up criminals for extended periods, we could pay people on their third strike to accept voluntary euthanasia. DPF already thinks sterilisation is a good idea as an "early release incentive", so we're part way there ...

by Graeme Edgeler on March 04, 2010
Graeme Edgeler

What I want to know is why Dave G doesn't mix this proposal into his three-strike law...

Well, assault on a child/smacking was in David Garrett's original draft of the three-strikes bill, so you may have something there =)

by Tim Watkin on March 05, 2010
Tim Watkin

Graeme, as editor and owner he can pull something down in an instant. That's a matter for his judgment.

Andrew, of course you're right, sloppy on my part. I simply meant to use the example of someone caught raising their hand to a child – the most famous example thus far being the Christchurch musician last year – and ask how comfortable people would be with that as a threshold for abuse and/or bad parenting.

by Craig Ranapia on March 05, 2010
Craig Ranapia

Elsewhere, I faceitously suggest that Garrett didn't go far enough and we need to be having a "discussion" about making horse syringes full of drain cleaner the primary mode of geriatric healthcare delivery.  (Nothing compulsory, of course, just a bit of gentle encouragement -- and who among the next of kin couldn't make good use of five grand in a recession.)

Oddly enough, chequebook geronticide is utterly beyond the pale...

by william blake on March 05, 2010
william blake

..yep, this is barely disguised Fascism.


by Tim Watkin on March 05, 2010
Tim Watkin

Another odd thing, Craig, is the number of well-off people who have jokingly (or perhaps half-jokingly) said to me that they'd consider slapping their kids around a couple of times to get a free vasectomy and $5000 in the hand!

Honestly, there are stupid ideas and then there's Garrett. 

by The Falcon on March 09, 2010
The Falcon

A bit of an overreaction in my opinion Tim. This article is not a lot better than the outright wrong comments made by Phil Goff etc on the news - that Garrett's comments were inconsistent with ACT's principles because the policy would involve "the State choosing who to sterilise". Your article makes passing acknowledgement of the VOLUNTARY nature of the scheme, but then goes on to say "What greater infringement of individual liberty is there than taking a persons right to a family, to a child?" Misleading writing there.

The fact that it is not a compulsory scheme is a big deal. The hysterical reaction to Garrett's idea is not necessary once you realise this - the State already pays people to do all sorts of things, including having children (Working for Families). By your logic, the State is FORCING people to have children, which is a "huge infringement of their right to use their own body how they see fit."

The funny thing is, it is by the abolition of that very scheme that Garrett's goals could be achieved in an all-round better way. Once the State stops paying people to have more and more children, a truly perverse incentive will be gone, and people will be far more likely to have children that they actually want, instead of children they can use as basketballs. And thus Garrett's dream will have been realised without needing to suffer confused and misleading commentators.

So I agree with you that the policy is not consistent with ACT's principles (would involve more government spending), and would be an administrative nightmare, but it isn't such a big deal. Cancelling the absurd Working for Families package seems the best way of ensuring a more caring crop of parents.

by Andrew Geddis on March 09, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Jeez, Falcon ... you really are stretching with this comment! I suspect you have no idea whatsoever what WFF actually does - you just know Labour introduced it, so it must be bad. Thats some good use of your thinking bone, that is.

(1) WFF only "pays people to have children"  (i.e. is only available) to those who already pay tax (i.e. to those who are in paid employment or have other "income" for tax purposes) ... which immediately distinguishes it from Garrett's proposals, which are aimed at the non-working poor.

(2) WFF hardly covers the entire cost of having a child - anyone who chooses to have children to increase their income under WFF clearly is incapable of a rational cost-benefit analysis.

(3) Thus, cancelling WFF will simply take money away from predominently lower-middle and middle class families that will have children anyway. It won't do anything to the birthrate.

For the purpose of your future venting on the interweb, you really mean to attack the DPB. That's the bogey-monster you are after. Good luck.

by The Falcon on March 10, 2010
The Falcon

I'm perfectly aware of how WFF works.

1) I can't find anything in the articles that suggests Garrett's proposal was aimed at non-workers. It seems to me that he was just aiming at abusive parents generally.

2) Depends on how much the parent spends on the child - it probably doesn't cost too much for an abusive parent to occasionally buy cheap food for their child, while ignoring such frivolities as shoes. And anyway, it is still an incentive, which is (ECON 101) guaranteed to sway the cost-benefit analysis.

3) See above... incentives are always going to change behaviour, and personally I don't like the idea of improving the incentives for people to have children when they can't afford them (e.g. at age 18-20), which results in more welfare dependency (WFF is just as bad as DPB in this regard - yes the workers pay some tax, but overall they are net beneficiaries).

The key point in my first post was that the government already makes arbitrary decisions about what it is "good" to pay people to do, and this currently includes having children. The offer of an incentive (WFF) is not the same as forcing people to have children, just as Garrett's offer is not the same as forcibly sterilising people. This is the issue I took with Tim's article - by his logic, he should be equally outraged by WFF "forcing people to have children" which "tramples on their rights".

by Andrew Geddis on March 10, 2010
Andrew Geddis

If you honestly can't see the difference between the government choosing to direct resources towards something parents are going to do anyway, so as to enable them to spend more on raising their kids, and a proposal with no other purpose than to socially engineer desirable breeding choices then ... well, then you can't see the difference and more pity you.

Or, to put it another way, the Government allows businesses to claim depreciation of assets against their tax. By this logic, there is no problem with the Government socialising the entire means of production. QED.

by The Falcon on March 10, 2010
The Falcon

The problem is, you say peoples' decisions about having children won't be influenced by WFF at all because they will "do it anyway"? Quite a big call - it seems to me that you believe having children is a very unique exception to the rules of incentives. I disagree - someone who is tossing up between having a child at age 19, or putting it off for a few years until their earnings are high enough to properly support it, will be swayed by the offer of many thousands of dollars.

Or what about a more extreme hypothetical example - is a parent's decision about having children so sacrosanct that they would not be swayed even by a million dollar incentive?

Because of this, many have argued that WFF is itself a perfect example of social engineering, providing huge incentives for low earners to have large State-dependent families, and no incentives for high earners.

by Tim Watkin on March 11, 2010
Tim Watkin

Falcon, you miss the importance of coercion in this argument. There already is voluntary sterilisation for anyone who can afford it. By offering state funds to pay for it, you're taking it to a new level, and if you're short on cash, then it's got to be uncomfortably tempting. I made that case pretty clearly, I thought, so nothing misleading there. Indeed, by the end of your first post you've accepted that it's out of kilter with ACT's ideology.

As for WFF and any other family-focused government assistance, it's perverse to argue that pays people to have children. What it does is pay to support living children for those under a certain income. Would you rather have children suffering because of the sins or struggles of their parents?

To my mind, using government funds to help kids in low income families get a decent start in life is quite a different matter from using them to buy a person's fertility.

And the flippant comment about cheap food and shoes? Your underlying world view seems to be that if you're poor you're inclined to be a bludger or have little care for your children. That's pretty insulting to people trying to make ends meet on a low income.

by The Falcon on March 11, 2010
The Falcon

Tim, I don't like the sterilisation idea but the "if you're short on cash, it's got to be uncomfortably tempting" line surely applies to WFF too. Yes WFF covers children born before 2004, but it also does effectively pay people to have new children.

Another example of government (via Health Research Council NZ) offering money in exchange for an undesirable procedure - - students and other cash-strapped people act as guinea pigs for new medicines, in exchange for money. Is that also "outrageous"? NZ governments from both sides have decided that this sort of offer is not coercion, even if the temptation is higher for low-earners. Another example - joining the army.

As for preventing "children suffering because of the sins or struggles of their parents" - this was the exact aim of the sterilisation proposal. If a proven child-abuser has another child, I think we can both agree that the child is unlikely to get a "decent start in life".

My comment about shoes wasn't flippant, I was referring to the fact that no matter how much money is thrown at some parents, they choose not to spend it on providing their children with shoes etc. The point being that increasing welfare payments does not solve problems.

There is a BIG difference between compulsory sterilisation and "tempting" sterilisation. It's as fundamental as the difference between conscription and voluntary recruitment.

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