Dear Imprudence: Have You Considered Violating Your Son’s Bodily Autonomy Today?

Content warning: This post discusses involuntary sterilisation of people with disabilities.

Reader bzzzzgrrrl drew my attention to a recent Dear Abby column that featured this:

Dear Abby: My husband and I have a 24-year-old developmentally disabled son who lives with us. Three months ago, he met a nice girl at the mental health program he attends. They hold hands, go to the movies and occasionally smooch.

Recently, “Jasper” had a mark on his neck. We were over at a friend’s house for dinner when my best friend noticed the mark. She then proceeded to tell me I should consider getting Jasper “fixed.” At first, I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly, so I asked her to repeat it. I am shocked that she thinks I should have my son sterilized.

Jasper is diagnosed with ADD and Asperger’s syndrome. According to his mental health counselor, he could someday be married, have children and lead a productive, independent life. It just may take him longer to get to that point in comparison with his peers.

How should I respond to my friend about her suggestion? When she made it, I didn’t know what to say. — Speechless in New Hampshire

I’m going to give you a moment to take that in. When I first encountered it, I was so stunned that I actually blinked and sat in uneasy silence for a minute thinking ‘I did not just read that.’ And then I thought ‘this woman’s ‘friend’ did not just compare a person to a dog, right?’ And then I re-read and realised that yes, I did in fact just read that and yes, the ‘friend’ really did say that.

Because this is how people think. In 2007, the United States objected to wording in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities that said that we have a right to sexual and reproductive health services. In 2009, there was a controversy in Indiana over a bill attempting to bar involuntary sterilisation of people with disabilities. Sterilisation is presented as ‘in the patient’s best interest.’ People discuss involuntary sterilisation as a topic of debate, as though there is a question about whether or not it should be performed.

I’m sure Speechless’ friend thought there was nothing amiss about her comment. She’s just exercising some friendly concern! And talking about Jasper like he wasn’t even there, evidently. I’ve been Jasper, sitting in the chair at the dinner table while someone is telling my father how to control my body, and it is not a pleasant experience, to be reminded that the entire world considers you public property. Thinks that it is perfectly acceptable to discuss you like an animal or a piece of furniture in your presence. It’s not much of an extension from people thinking it’s ok to say whatever they want about you to people thinking it’s ok to do whatever they want to you.

Abby responded:

Dear Speechless: If you still want to maintain the friendship with the woman, tell her what your son’s mental health counselor said about his prospects for the future. But first, if you haven’t already, make sure Jasper clearly understands everything he needs to know to protect himself and his nice girlfriend from premature parenthood.

I cannot say that I am wholly impressed with this response. Mainly because Abby is acting like the friend is someone Speechless would ‘want to maintain a friendship with.’ Someone who suggests than a human being should be ‘fixed’ like a household pet is someone I would be tearing out of my address book, I tell you what. Miss Manners is never afraid to tell readers when their ‘friends’ deserve nothing more than the boot and I think that more advice columnists should follow suit, personally.

Whatever the son’s mental health counselor may or may not have said is not anyone else’s business. And whether or not Jasper can achieve the holy trinity of marriage, children, and a job, he is not required to justify his relationship, nor is his mother required to speak for him to justify his relationship. Jasper and his girlfriend are evidently happy. They are entitled to bodily autonomy. They are entitled to their own sexuality, and to not be scrutinized and monitored. Jasper is entitled to his fertility.

I’ve discussed the lack of access to sexual education here before, so I’m glad to see that Abby briefly touched upon that issue. And, you know, props for subverting the usual family planning narrative that puts the responsibility on the woman, but Abby’s comment reads as a tad patronising to me. It might be because I’m still reeling from the letter itself, of course.

Personally, what I think Speechless should do is cut her ‘friend’ dead, socially speaking. And if the ‘friend’ asks why, Speechless should tell her. And if other people ask why, Speechless should tell them too. One reason that these attitudes are so pervasive and persistent is that they are rarely challenged and discussed by people who are not disability rights activists. If members of the nondisabled community started actively pushing back on things like this, started really thinking about what this line of thinking represents, perhaps we could start to dismantle it.

I go from things like this to people telling me that involuntary sterilisation doesn’t happen any more, that eugenics is over and done with, because things like this are never discussed. People appear surprised to learn that not only does involuntary sterilisation still happen, but a lot of people are all for it.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

30 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: Have You Considered Violating Your Son’s Bodily Autonomy Today?

  1. On my blog, in 20 god damned 08, someone told me that I should be sterilized because I have major depressive disorder.

    I am still furious about that.

  2. I had to cut my relations with my own mother off for trying to get me declared legally incompetent so she could sterilize me. My cognitive disabilities are certainly no worse nor more heritable than this young man’s.

  3. This post reminds me of when a former “friend” of mine, James, told me my cousin, Janessa, should be sterilized. Janessa has Asperger’s Syndrome and depression, and is fairly independent. At first, I was simply going to lecture James about the rights of people with disabilities and see how he reacted to that. I was going to do this because I thought James was thinking it would be best for Janessa if she were sterilized. However, James then proceeded to tell me that it is “society’s right” to have people with disabilities sterilized. I thought that only fascists thought this way about people with disabilities. I asked James how it would benefit society if Janessa (and others with disabilities) were sterilized, and he told me about his theory that tax rates would decline. Honestly, how could you even think to take rights away from people to save money on taxes?!

  4. It sort of bugs me that Dear Abby was talking about making sure that Jasper knew about safe sex. Would she say that about a 24-year-old guy without a disability? That didn’t have anything to do with the question that was being asked. I understand it’s mega scary to think of disabled people reproducing, but it wasn’t on topic, and what makes her think that Jasper hasn’t already learned about safe sex from his family and his mental health counselor?

  5. I think you hit the nail on the head with why that comment made me uncomfortable and why it felt really patronising to me. The fact is that people with disabilities are often denied sexual education and thus, it’s not implausible that a 24 year old actually might not know about safer sex, which is why I was glad she added the ‘if you haven’t already,’ stressing he should have been provided with comprehensive sexual education, but something else about the way it’s worded just doesn’t sit right with me.

    ETA: I actually really like that Abby said ‘premature parenthood.’ That sounds to me like she doesn’t think that he shouldn’t be a father, although it’s still making a value judgment about when he can be a father (if he wants to be).

  6. “How should I respond to my friend about her suggestion?”

    ‘Get the fuck out of my house right now, before I have you arrested for criminal trespass, and don’t ever speak to me or anyone in my family again’ seems to me like a fine place to start, but maybe I am somewhat more inclined than many people to be confrontational in that sort of way.


    “I thought that only fascists thought this way about people with disabilities.”

    You were absolutely right, too. ‘Fascist’ is an easy word to throw around and an easier word to misdefine, but no matter who you ask, the idea that “inconvenient” people should die for the benefit of the state and their more worthy fellow citizens? That’s fascist right down to the core.

  7. Besides the letter itself, the most annoying part IMO was where Abby advised Sppechless to tell her “friend” what the counselor said. Not only is that none of the “friend”‘s business, but it shouldn’t be relevant. People with disabilities have a right to bidly autonomy, and it doesn’t matter how independent they are.

  8. WTF? “Fixed”?

    …and “tell your friend what the counselor said”? Apparently “Dear Abby” doesn’t believe people with disabilities have a right to keep their medical histories private, nor that people with disabilities have a right to decide for themselves what things to share about their disabilities and any treatments/accomodations they receive.


  9. If we are not considering independent and are society’s wards, why doesn’t society help us function better? We’re dependent as it serves the narrow-minded.

    And because I can’t say much more, the LW should say, “No, have you got your kid fixed? After all, you don’t want those freckles/that nose passed on!”

  10. The so-called ‘best friend’ acts as though the young man is a dog, needing to be fixed, while Abby acts as though he’s a child, needing to be told about the birds and the bees. They’re much of a muchness, to my mind. I’m with Aaron – Speechless should tell her ‘friend’ to take a hike.

  11. Ugh. No. Just…no.

    I remember in junior high we learned about eugenics, and I was one of the only people in my class who did not think it was a good idea poorly executed. Sadly, this attitude is actually really prevalent.

  12. … oh sweet jumping wtfberries no. Sterilized? *fumes* I just. No. That is so totally wrong. I can’t even fully express why, aside from wanting to splutter about how he is still a /person/.

    I have no desire to have a child, and I am disabled, but a) the two are not completely related, b) it has nothing to do with whether or not I have a partner, and c) it is /my choice/. If anyone tried to suggest that I should be sterilized, or completely 100% celibate, I don’t think that I would be able to ever speak to them again.

  13. Wow. How utterly appalling.

    I do not have any disabilities myself. I do know, however, that some people would suggest that I would not be a suitable parent because I am fat/pagan/queer/etc, and some would go so far as to suggest that sterilization should follow suit.

    I am disturbed by anyone suggesting that anyone should be sterilized against their will.

    Some people, really now. o.O

  14. I just read a post on the same subject over at Shakesville, and the poster, Maud, pointed out that “nice girlfriend” was a way you’d describe the girlfriend of a child, not of a young adult. I think that while I didn’t realise it, it’s one of the things that made me uncomfortable with Abby’s response. I also had a problem with the assumption that the explanation she should give to that friend was the fact that her son was expected to get closer to “normal” (so if he wasn’t, it would be okay to have him sterilized against his will?), and the fact that the way she talks about “premature parenthood” gives me the feeling that she doesn’t believe he should have a child now.

  15. Jasper could well have educated himself on how to keep sex recreational and not procreative. There is this new-fangled internets thing these days. I could be described with those words and I managed to get a basic grasp of safer sex (I didn’t get the advanced class until I started hanging out with BDSM-type people who take that avoiding fluid-contact thing real serious-like) before there was a World Wide Web without adult intervention. There’s just a lot of patronising here. It’s all… sticky.

    I’m with y’all; I wouldn’t be in a hurry to keep this friendship.

    Interesting that the “defective people shouldn’t breed” text is so blatant in this; usually it’s subtext beneath concern that we’d get ourselves in trouble if we weren’t denied access to our own gametes.

  16. Fixed? FIXED?!! I, I, ARRRGH.

    I can’t agree, though, that treating an adult human being like an animal, and treating an adult human being like a child, are the same. I don’t put the problems in the friend’s response and in Dear Abby’s response on anything like the same level of appalling.

  17. I don’t think there is anything wrong with Abby saying to make sure the guy knows about birth control. After all, there are some 20+ -year-olds in this country without any disabilities that think douching with Coca-Cola will prevent pregnancy, for example. The educational system is not exactly consistent or thorough. And while my parents aren’t bad people, they are very old-fashioned and you just didn’t talk about this stuff “back then”, and so since I didn’t ask, I didn’t learn about sex until I saw The Video in the 6th grade.

  18. I agree that the friend’s commentary is much worse than Abby’s response. The friend’s commentary made me cringe in horror; it was so obvious that I didn’t think I’d need to discuss it, and it was so appalling that I don’t think I could have said anything remotely articulate anyways. Abby’s response made me uncomfortable, and this is something I thought it might be possible for me and interesting to talk about.

  19. Ughhhh. I agree with everybody that the friend’s suggestion was completely absolutely appalling and inhumane. But I just wanted to add this slightly off topic note: as a former sex educator, I think everybody, absolutely everybody, needs to continually have conversations about safe sex. What makes me uncomfortable about the answer is that the mom never asked how to deal with her son, just her friend. The mom seems wonderfully supportive of her son (despite her poor choice in friends) and didn’t seem remotely worried about his relationship, so why did Abby feel the need to slip that unsolicited advice in? I’m really hoping it’s because she’s a firm believer in open conversations about sexuality, but I’m not so sure…

  20. I wish I were surprised that someone would use the language of veterinary care to describe a young person with developmental disabilities, but I’m not. I wish I were surprised that the advice is to be a good little woman and politely educate the rampantly, offensively ignorant twit rather than telling her which small sector of hell to go to. Everything about this is actively depressing.

    Though I will give Abby one point on the “premature parenthood” thing, in that parenthood that occurs before a person has had reasonable sexual education and can therefore make an informed decision can be fairly characterized as “premature” regardless of the age of the partners involved.

  21. That whole bit about “premature parenthood” rubbed me nine ways of wrong from Sunday. Who is Abby to decide what is premature about how or when Jasper might become a parent? I do believe that is still up to Jasper and his “nice girlfriend”. We didn’t need an advice columnist to decide how to proceed here, folks!

    Abby’s whole response was condescending, as if she knew that she should respond one way in order to avoid getting angry letters for ZOMCC OFFENDING ALL THE MEEN CRIPPLES OUT THERE but she wasn’t going to exactly be nice about it either. I am the Queen of a land called Passive Aggressiva…I can smell my own kind. Abby is trying to get away with something here, and I am calling bullshit on it.

    Your response is spot on, s.e., in that it is nice to see someone give nod to the fact that the onus should be all on the woman any more. I also think K0 is onto something there, perhaps Jasper here is well educated already, having internet and such.

  22. I’m assuming that this friend is ‘older’ (at least over 50) and may have some very outdated views about people with disabilities.

    Maybe instead of shunning her, that sort of situation would be a great opportunity to change her mind.

    I know it’s hard to do that when it gets personal, but getting mad certainly wouldn’t change anything in this situation.

  23. I don’t really embrace the idea that all bigoted ideas are only held by people over 50. I’ve certainly met enough people in my own age group who think exactly the same way, and I’m in my 30s.

  24. Anna, that’s true, but the age of the son points to a middle-aged mother, who likely has middle-aged friends.

  25. So? That doesn’t mean that it’s okay to imply that people over 50 all have bigoted ideas, and that those ideas are somehow more acceptable because, well, they’re over 50, and we can’t expect more from the poor dears, can we?

    There’s a lot of things to unpack in sarah’s comment, of which that is only a single aspect. It also includes “Be a teaching tool in the face of bigotry against your family!” and “If only you’re nice enough!” and “You’re angry over something unimportant!” Those are fairly blatant, though. I went after the implied idea that it’s okay to expect very little in terms of tolerance from a certain age-group of people because it’s both subtle and unacceptable, as well as common as dirt.

  26. Anna’s point here being that we needn’t respond to prejudice with prejudice. And it’s perhaps likely the mother’s friends are middle-aged but we’re given no information regarding the age of the letter-writer’s friend. People of disparate ages do have close relationships. (To get personal: I’m fifteen years younger than my wife.) Younger people do have implicit biases and explicit bigotries.

    Another point is that not every act of insensitivity or bigotry is YAYES TEACHABLE MOMENT TIME! We are not obliged to educate anyone on demand. It’s a classic derailing technique: “But I just don’t knooooow about this stuff and I really want to learrrrn and if you don’t teach me to my satisfaction right now my bigotries will be your fault.”

    This is Hostage Logic of course. “If you don’t do what I tell you I’ll kill these babies and their deaths will be your fault because you could have stopped it!” Hostage Logic is bullshit. It’s always been bullshit. The person who can stop the babies from being killed is the person who has the gun or the bomb controls or whatever. If those babies are killed it’s that person’s fault and no one else’s. The person who can stop a bigot from being bigoted is the person with the bigoted ideas in ou head. If ou remains a bigot it is ou fault and no one else’s.

    If after being told what she said was a shitty hurtful thing Jasper’s Mum’s Friend wants to get educated on why what she said was a shitty hurtful thing there is Google. There is much information made available by people like us which is readily available at anyone’s convenience. She needn’t bother Jasper’s Mum personally.

    I know you didn’t say Jasper’s Mum had to do the teachable moment thing but please do trust me on this: Suggestions that we can use an act of insensitivity as a teachable moment tend to become imperatives that we must use acts of insensitivity as teachable moments. This is just how the kyriarchy works.

    ETA: Hah. Jinx Anna. 😉

  27. Yes, exactly, kaninchenzero, although I’ve never heard the term Hostage Logic before. 🙂

    Also, your words are kinder than mine. I’m sorry for snapping, Jayn. That was unacceptable of me.

  28. “…although I’ve never heard the term Hostage Logic before.”

    I may have invented it! At least I’ve never heard anyone else use it that I recall.


    Google gives some return on the phrase but they all seem to mean something more along the lines of the captive audience/market concept rather than the moral concept I refer to. (Which concept is not new and my observation that it is broken is hardly original. But I may have coined that term for it. Neat!)

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