Emily Gillingham, Resident Blogger (’15, Michigan State University College of Law)
I’ve been reading a lot lately about the many young women who, after much careful deliberation and research, have concluded that they want to be sterilized- only to be turned down by their doctors. The story plays out again, and again, and again, on blog after blog. This is A Thing That Is Happening, and it really burns my toast. Some doctors are telling women that they won’t perform the procedure until the women are 30 or even 35 years old, in case they decide later that they want kids.
Let me be clear here- there is a long, complicated, and painful history (and present) of sterilization where the woman is being coerced or forced by a person or by the government, or targeted because of her race, class, religion or disability, or lacks informed consent. I’m talking about women who are being denied the procedure only because their doctors are worried that they will regret it.
For those women, being denied the procedure is frustrating. As blogger Bri Seeley wrote, “I was livid. I had asked for a procedure for six straight years with no break in my desires, opinions, or beliefs. Why did the medical community continue to deny me of my personal right to sterilization?”
Sterilization is safer than pregnancy, and actually reduces the risk of ovarian cancer and pelvic inflammatory disease. It doesn’t increase women’s risk of breast cancer, unlike a certain birth control method might (I’M LOOKING AT YOU, PILL), and it’s reversible in 25% to 87% of cases. It also leaves some women options like in vitro fertilization and adoption if they decide that they want to have a child and reversal doesn’t take. Also, although some IUDs and hormonal implants are actually more effective than sterilization, not every method is a good fit for every woman, so making sterilization available to women who want it is important.
If your brain is exploding with the effort of trying to understand why this is happening at a time where the right to choose abortion is being severely restricted, politicians seem to have some sort of bet going about who can be the biggest jerk about restricting contraceptive access, and raising kids is hella expensive, I totally feel you.
Nonetheless, there is something creepily paternalistic about medical professionals making women who’ve decided that they don’t want kids risk birth control failure for a decade or more, just in case they’re wrong. After all, some of the research about young age and sterilization regret that the National Institutes of Health points to is based on procedures performed in the 1970s and 1980s, and our attitudes about women’s role in society and the number of women who wish to remain childless have shifted dramatically since then. It would be interesting to see future research focus on women who are denied sterilization procedures. We could learn a lot from the women’s motives, the doctor’s rationales for denial, and demographic data. The most visible blog posts on this subject are written by white women, and there is value in knowing why we aren’t reading women of color blog on this topic.
Denial of sterilization to young women is related to, and perpetuates, the myth that all women want children and that those who do not will change their minds. As reproductive justice advocates, we should be fighting for doctors to respect women’s personal decisions about sterilization.