No Kidding: Do Women Have the Right to Sterility?

Brittany Shoot
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A fairly obvious question that I haven't addressed during this series is whether women have the right to be sterile. It seems like sort of an obvious one (if not with just one obvious answer) until you consider how we frame other discussions about women's health.


Abortions rights advocates (a heterogeneous group, to be sure) sometimes argue that women have a right to abortions in the same way that women have a right to contraception, safety, and a whole host of other rights that are not as universal as we'd like to believe. But between reading some of the comments here and employing a bit of feminist common sense, it's obvious that many women do not have access to the health care that they want and need. Should intentionally childless women who suffer from contraceptive-related side effects be stuck with a bunch of sub-par alternatives for the entirety of their fertile years? Should they have to rely on their male partner's desire for and access to permanent sterilization options? Why isn't more of this stuff routinely covered by health insurance, private and public alike?

It's obviously different, but I was thinking about all of this when I read "Ask an Abortion Provider" on The Hairpin yesterday. The article's author talks about the disconnect many people have about abortion—arguably relevant to issues of childfreedom. She writes, "At the core of it, there's a huge gap between saying 'I had one' and saying 'I do them.' I don't want to alienate people."

Now, I'm not saying having an abortion and not having a child are the same thing; not by a long shot. But both decisions are very much about agency and control over one's own body, the right to make decisions that are best for your life. Both bring up questions of access, financial and logistical. Both can be emotionally fraught under the best of circumstances. In the same way, do you think it all boils down to the same sort of idea, that people say, "I support abortion but I don't want to have one & neither should you," or, "I support women's choices to not have children, but I think you're [insert personal insult related to selfishness or intelligence]"? Both are condescending and use personal judgment as evidence of right and wrong. Neither seems particularly fair or just to me.

For me, this all comes back to that old slogan, "Trust Women." Because if you don't trust women to make up their own minds about their own bodies—to have children, to not have children, to do whatever is necessary to achieve either of those objectives, and to handle the consequences if their choices turned out to be less than ideal later on—then we aren't talking about choice, or rights, or justice, anymore.

Photo via internets_dairy on Flickr

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23 Comments Have Been Posted

If we're talking reproductive

If we're talking reproductive justice, like the tag says, I'd argue that a much more relevant and overlooked issue isn't the right to sterilization, but sterilization abuse (more relevant not because it's any more or less important than the right to sterilization, just because it affects so many women and is so rarely discussed in mainstream feminism). Let's talk about this country's history of strategically sterilizing low-income women and women of color without proper consent.

I am a low-income woman of

I am a low-income woman of color who would like to be sterilized. Please tell me, middle class white woman, where we are currently being mistreated so I can find a doctor willing to perform the procedure without dismissing me as a brood mare.

I think what Katie is trying

I think what Katie is trying to say is that there has been a long and ongoing history of women being forcefully sterilized in order to prevent them from having children. My grandmother is Roma, and her mother and father were forced to flee Czechoslavakia before she was born because many European nations at the time were performing forced-sterility on Roma women in order to reduce the population of Roma. This all boils down to racism and eugenics. The U.S. was one of the first countries to jump on board with the eugenics-based forced-sterilization program, targeting mentally ill and physically disabled women, as well as African American women and American Indian women. It's a lesser talked about issue in American history, and often gets swept under the rug. Forced-sterilization is still an issue today in countries such as China and many parts of Latin America, and has actually been prevalent in many European countries up into the 1970s.

It's really messed up that

It's really messed up that you are a low-income woman of color who would like to be sterilized but you can't gain access, and there's also a history of low-income women of color who DON'T want to be sterilized having the procedure done without their consent. This country has a lot of problems with trusting women =/

I wish I could give you information on how to get sterilized for a reasonable cost, but it's hard to get it done where I'm at, too. The only advice I can offer is maybe consider an IUD instead? They're a lot easier to get the cost covered and get access to in general, they're longterm birth control (5-10 years depending on the type), and they're considered as effective as sterilization. Obviously not EXACTLY what you're looking for and it's really messed up that you can't just get a sterilization if you want one, but until our health care system and government figure out that women should control their own bodies, it's close.

A right not to give birth to children makes sense

Whether a woman elects not to have children by avoiding unwanted fertilization or by abortion, it makes sense that there be a right not to give birth to children.

Is there a right to give birth to children? For example, if a woman doesn't have a willing partner (man or sperm bank), or doesn't have a womb or ovaries, should they be provided to her? Did Nadya Suleman have right to have six embryos implanted simultaneously? I'm inclined to think such a right would be difficult to defend.

Eugenics . . .

Thanks to a hot cocktail of Social Darwinism and the thirst to control Non-white and Non-rich populations in the decades after the Civil War, the deplorable idea of eugenics was concieved . . . Eugenics of based upon the belief that society has paid enough for the degrenrates in the world (criminal behavior, the mentally ill, the poor, anybody not carrying around a fat wallet or white, etc) and that the use of wide-spread sterilization would save money (no jails, no asylums, no need for public aid, etc). Were men targeted over the last 130 years? Nope. It was us gals, and whether or not we realize it or not, there is still a drive to sterilize the poor and deemed "unwanted" in this country.

I am an educated artist with a mixed racial background and by looking at me an my red hair, few ever suspect that I am anything but Anglo. Fresh out of college and struggling to make ends-meat, I qualify and take advantage of the services that are available to me (ie. FS and Medicaid). I am also cursed by rampant fertility that has resulted in five pregnancies withing seven years of married even though I have been on EVRY form of birth control created by man . . . except sterilization. I always wanted a large family, but when I was pregnant with my fourth child I knew that I a didn't think that I wanted more than that. I was done being perpetually pregnant and mentioned a tubal ligation to my physician. The doctor told the nurse to draw up the paperwork and within a minute the nurse returned to have me sign it. I was shocked and could not help but be insulted by the speed at which these professionals were working at to get me to sign my ability to have children away . . . It put me off and I became suspicious.

I did not sign the paper and set-out to find out why these people were so enthusiastic to get me to sign. (When I said I didn't want to sign, I was encouraged to do so for nearly 15 minutes afterwards.) I read books about Eugenics and found-out that the so called glorious answer to the burden of motherhood was born of the desire to curb poor and non-white populations, and that even today doctors are encouraged to suggest them to women who are on public assistance of any kind . . . This is outrageous alone, but with the added bonus of discovering that tubal ligations (which are NOT declicate procedures and quite beastly) can effect the blood supply to a woman's ovaries and then send her into an early & sudden menopause.

I will be having a tubal ligation performed in June of this year. NOT because I dislike children and find them a burden, NOT because I am having it thrust upon me, and NOT because I believe it will ensure my "freedom". I am having it done because I want to ensure the quality of mothering that I can provide to the children I currently have, and I am willing to take the risk of possibly damaging my hormone levels because I have been the victim of down to 1% failure rates of every other form of contraception . . . and I cannot see another chemical failure allowing me to get pregnant again and having to consider an abortion I don't want, or interrupting my desires as a woman and mother. As humans, we have the self-awareness and can choose to limit our numbers. It is when that "choice" is made for us that we become the victims of inhumanity . . .

You might already know this,

Are you kidding?

Sterlization is an

Sterlization is an irrevocable choice. But so is having a kid or an abortion. As adults we're willing to accept the consequences of our choices.

I'm a 25 year old bisexual woman in a relationship of 6 years with a man. Healthcare reform has given me one year on my parents' insurance to find a doctor willing to fit me with an Essure coil, a procedure with fewer complications than tubal ligation.

My background: I never babysat as a teenager because I don't like kids. I'm the ominously silent woman at baby showers, the coworker who won't gush over your baby pictures. I've never wanted children ever and more than that, never want to be pregnant or the primary caretaker. A heart condition prevents me from using hormonal birth control, so I'm interested in a more permanent and effective method.

The only argument I've received from doctors so far is that I might change my mind if I got married. Really? There's no guarantee I'll get married. (I'm open to it if the right *person* comes along, but it's not exactly a goal.) It's patronizing, insulting, sexist and heterosexist. You'd think the heart condition would be another reason a doctor would want to help me prevent pregnancy in the first place. Nope. Surprise! Not all women are maternal. We don't all change ourselves to please a man.

If we can have abortion on demand without apology, we should have the same for sterilization.

Eliza, that's a brilliant

Eliza, that's a brilliant comment. I could not agree with your perspective more. It always comes down to male uncertainty about a woman's decision making prowess: 'You might change your mind.'

Likewise, I have spent my life since childhood (I am now 36) telling people I didn't ever want children and everyone -everyone - always said, condesendingly and pityingly 'Oh, you'll change your mind'. Guess what? I didn't. It looks like I really did always know what I wanted, after all!

While I agree with 99% of

While I agree with 99% of your comment, I have to take issue with "We don't all change ourselves to please a man," which is it's own load of judgmental assumptions in itself. I was like you for all of my teens and twenties - couldn't really care less about them and didn't want anything to do with them. Now I'm in my 30s and I've changed my mind. I still don't want to bear a child, and still would love to be sterilized if it was a simple process (I can't get Essure because I'm allergic to nickel), but I finally feel like it wouldn't be a totally drain on me to adopt a child. The difference has nothing to do with my marital status; in fact, I've been married since I was 23 and it was only after I started talking about wanting a child that my husband tentatively said he might want one too. The difference, for me, is that I finally feel emotionally and financially stable enough in my life to deal with a child, plus I have lots of friends and family now who I know would help me when I need it rather than isolate and judge me. So NO ONE should assume that marriage will change a woman's mind, and you shouldn't assume that a woman like me who does change her mind is solely doing it to please her husband.

You're right, I was mostly

You're right, I was mostly reacting to my second doctor's phrasing about meeting the right guy and "wanting to have his babies." That it wouldn't be maturity and new perspective creating the change of heart in your case, but me deciding to gift hubby with my womb.

I fell 35 ft when I was 19,

I fell 35 ft when I was 19, and broke my pelvis, several vertebrae, & my sacroiliac as well as herniating several discs. My doc strongly suggested sterilization as becoming pregnant would make my back pain much worse & could possiblyt paralyze me.. I didn't want kids, but even with a doctors recommendation, I was unable to find a doc that would perform sterilization on me until I was 28. Even at that age, I went to several doctors before I could find one that would agree to the procedure. They all argued that I might "change my mind" as well. At the last minute prior to surgery, someone noted that my husband had not consented to the procedure, so they would not proceed without his okay! I was furious! I still wasn't allowed to make my own decisions about my own body, and had to have my husbands' consent.
I'm 48 now, and I still haven't "change my mind". I'm glad I had the procedure done and have not regretted my decision a single time.


Great post, Eliza. My 26 year old daughter is in a nearly identical situation- she feels no draw towards motherhood, nor children. She has heart and spinal issues that make carrying a baby difficult at best. She and her fiance are both open to the idea of adoption should they ever feel a need to have a family of their own, but due to being a younger woman who hasn't popped out any children yet, she is met with resistance over her desire to undergo sterilization.

This sounds awful, but tell

This sounds awful, but tell your daughter to go to a doctor with her fiance, to "prove" there's more than fickle femininity involved. Isn't it ridiculous how doctors talk? If they changed their minds, they can still have kids - through adoption or foster parenting.


Even if we advocate for sterilization as a right, I believe it to also be problematic. I agree with what Katie (above) said about the difference between sterilization rights and sterilization abuse. It seems you only see offers of sterilization to low-income women, particularly low-income women of color, during economic crisis. I don't see how women, particularly low-income and/or women of color, can afford sterilization unless we are under a sneaky population control issue. This is another issue of access, but more of a monetary blockage of said access.

And with the access also come another issue. I have had doctors refuse me sterilization because of my age (I was 21 at the time and a mother of two children) saying they would not do it because I may want to have more kids, and I was too young to decide that now. How dare they decide for me whether or not I am old enough to make that decision! I'm sure it doesn't help I live in the south or that I am a woman of color. I'm not sure if this is happening to other women, but I wouldn't be surprised.

I would be more than happy to advocate for women to CHOOSE whether or not they wanted to be sterilized, if the same access was given to ALL women, and not mandated under a sneaky population control scheme. I would do this just I as I now advocate for abortion (choice), women's health care, and all other aspects of reproductive justice. And I'd do it with a smile.

Medical permanence

At 18, I paid a guy to put a 2 inch rod through the center of my tongue and it was legal. He did not question my motives, as he did not question the hundreds of girls who paid him to do the same. At 19, I paid a guy, legally, to burn ink into my skin for a tattoo of a satyr that has lost some of its relevance to my 29 year old identity. The question of permanence for these procedures was not called into question for me or any of the women in queue behind me. In my opinion, Medical practitioners have a lot to learn from beauticians and the body mod industry: trust your clients.

At 24, my girlfriend considered dred-locking her 12 inch long biracial hair, and she had to fend herself off from family, coworkers, and other unwanted strangers inviting themselves into personal conversation. People were very concerned over this aspect, (hair) more so than if she wanted to splatter a fictionalized tribal tattoo over her wrists or neck, where most of the same people felt that they had no right to speak up. To sum up, when it comes to augmenting sexuality away from "normality" (especially in traditional areas of historic domination: hair, vagina, potential for kids), permanence is an issue that strangers feel a right to intervene in, but when it comes "increasing" desire, the woman is allowed to be a free agent. Some cultural consistency would be nice, America.

I believe that, to a significant degree, that sterilization and abortion grate on the modern male psyche for reasons that have quite a bit to do with both evolutionary biology and our beliefs about masculinity. By viewing women as conquests, gaining access and trust enough to have sex becomes an "investment" of effort, lies, money or whatever the male used, and so it would be a total loss of that effort if the independently thinking woman removed the baby. Generally speaking, the personal stakes for the male are far lower than the female, but ego and (i think at least to a degree) latent desire to pass on genes helps to assure the man that his stake in the venture is important.

One guy who thinks like this is less of a problem than a unified front of "masculinity" that on a societal level is only really concerned about preserving potential baby-makers for one of the lucky "teammates." Which is why this oppression has spanned centuries. Women who knew about abortifacient herbs were witches. Spinsters were traditionally shunned. Lesbians routinely attacked. All posed threats to our inherited masculinity meme because sex for men is more biologically/evolutionarily valuable if a baby is in the equation. Making men see that sort of selfishness, and subconscious "team playing" is difficult.

Doctors Trusting Women

There is certainly something special about the lack of trust doctors have for women patients in the US. Back when I actually had health insurance, getting a doctor to prescribe the anti-fungal yeast infection pill or antibiotics for a bladder infection was a nightmare. They didn't trust me that I knew the symptoms, regardless of my age or how frequently I have them (in my case each at least several times a year and it has always been that way since I hit puberty). They absolutely HAD to run all the usual tests, which I then have to pay for, wait a while, come back again, etc.

I was in the UK a couple months ago with a bladder infection, waiting to get on my plane home so I could go straight to a doctor as it was getting very painful, when my flight was cancelled and not rebooked for another week. So, I went to a clinic there. The didn't bat an eye when I listed my home country as not being the UK. The wait was 15 minutes until the female doctor asked me in.

I said, "I have had a bladder infection for about 5 days".
She replied, "Is that a self-diagnoses?"
I said, "Yes". I was about to go into my defense mode where I tell her how many years of experience I've had with them and I know what I'm talking about, but I didn't have to.
She asked, "Are you ok with that self diagnoses?"
I said, "Yes".
She wrote the prescription and handed it to me.

What???? That has never happened before! She BELIEVED me! And didn't waste my time or hers! Less than 5 minutes and $0 later, I was done. I went downstairs, paid about $10 US for the drugs and began to feel better after a day.


True. And interestingly, I'm sure docs didn't question you ad nauseam when you were pregnant about really wanting offspring and not changing your mind later...regretting giving birth to them. What mechanism and outry is there to prevent people from regret of childbirth before and after they're born? None!

Able to decide you want children for the rest of your life, but not able to decide that you don't want them. Not able to know what you want with your life, but allowed to direct lives of others - of the offspring.

Is there legal precedent now?

I just read this on feministing. Can't this be brought to bear against doctors?

If a pharmacists can no longer legally deny one a pregnancy test, then surely a doctor cannot deny a medically necessary surgery, (like the commenter with the busted back and pelvis).

low income

my husband is unemplyed and i work to support my ten year old boy and a 3 year old in my country life is tough although i earn above the minimum wage. I struggle to provide food on the table and even starve myself at work so for theres no more budget for food. My travel expenseis high and i can only actualy provided for a week's food and my pay is every other week. I asked an obgyne for me to be ligated. She won't. Wow! Now Im pregnant(5 months) now working at night which is too much to bare for me due to sensitivity of my pregnancy. I can no loger take care of the kids and myself. I can only cry. Abortion here is ilegal and unsafe and just made me hate myself more.

You know what makes me laugh?

You know what makes me laugh? When doctors refuse to allow a woman access to sterilisation they are effectively saying "we don't believe you are mature enough, or rational enough to decide what to do with your own body but we will happily trust you with the care and nurturing of an entire other human being"

I can join the army and make the decision that I will die for my country, but I am not rational enough to choose not to have children.

I can decide what I feel is the best choice for my country as a whole and vote accordingly, but I cannot decide what I feel is the best choice for my body.

I can choose a career, or an education path, that will effect the course of the rest of my life, but heavens forbid I change my life by not filling it with babies.

Priorities, much?

I had my tubes tied at 29

I had my tubes tied at 29 (ten years ago) and have not regretted it for a moment. I have tried before to engage in these conversations about the right to sterilization and I get shut down with a lecture about forced sterilization of poor women. I was amazed my insurance covered it (which they should since I am saving them tens of thousands of dollars in pre-natal care, delivery, and healthcare for offspring) and I found my doctor by getting recommendations by other childfree women who had succeeded in getting the procedure.

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