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12 Women Die, Dozens Hospitalized After Sterilization Procedures In India

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We turn now to India, a country that has long tried to curb its population growth. In the 1970s, India introduced a forced sterilization program as a method of birth control. Sterilization is still in practice there, though it's no longer compulsory. Last weekend, at a government-run facility in central India, a surgeon sterilized more than 80 women in six hours. That's about four minutes for each operation. At least 13 of those women died of complications from the surgery. Dozens more are hospitalized. Washington Post correspondent Annie Gowen joined us from New Delhi. Good morning.

ANNIE GOWEN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, these surgeries took place at what's known as a sterilization camp. What exactly is that?

GOWEN: Yes, I think when people heard the news of this tragedy, they were probably really surprised to hear that term. A sterilization camp is something that happens in India where many poor women are taken to places where district health workers sterilize them and essentially tie their tubes. Most of them come voluntarily because they have already had two or three children, and they're usually enticed by a payment of some kind - about $22 at the current rate or a free sari or pots and pans. And this is one of the ways that India is trying to curb its population growth.

MONTAGNE: Well, let me ask what extent female sterilization is used as a method of contraception in India today.

GOWEN: So it's actually the most prevalent method of contraception for married people. And 37 percent of all married women have been sterilized, according to the most recent statistics. The public health system has often been criticized because they tend to rely on sterilization because it's a quick and easy fix for family planning, as opposed to more time-intensive methods of issuing birth control pills, counseling, etc.

MONTAGNE: Although, it sounds like when you talk about these sterilization camps, you're not talking about middle-class women or upper-class women. You're talking about poor women who would be enticed by 10 or $20 to do something they may or may not want. I mean, to what degree is this - is there pressure to do this, and to what degree is this simply sort of a tragedy of circumstance?

GOWEN: Yeah, and, you know, the women are sometimes brought in by finders, headhunters essentially, who are paid also a paltry amount to bring them to the clinics, but for them it's quite a lot of money. So you do wonder to what extent they've been coerced, especially by husbands who may want, you know, fast cash or pots and pans or whatever the going gift of the day might be.

MONTAGNE: Well, I gather this is getting a lot of publicity there in India. What has been the government's response to these deaths?

GOWEN: Well, the national government has been oddly silent. Right now, it appears that there may have been other patients sickened at other camps around the same time. So it may be a much larger tragedy than initially suspected.

MONTAGNE: A tragedy that might bring about change?

GOWEN: You know, the public health advocates have always said that they think that the Indian government is way too reliant on sterilization as a method of birth control because it's easy, right? So public health workers don't have to continuously go to these villages repeatedly, council women, repeatedly hand out birth control pills or condoms. But the Population Council and the United Nations are advocating that they widen the options for women, offering things like injectables and implants and better quality control if they do offer sterilization.

MONTAGNE: That's Annie Gowen, India correspondent for The Washington Post, speaking to us from New Delhi. Thanks very much.

GOWEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.