'Voluntary' sterilisation – the crime that seems fine about speaking its name

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.