Tag Archives: involuntary sterilisation

Reproductive Justice is for Everyone, Even People You Don’t Like

There’s a sign on the wall of a local clinic which says, according to my paraphrasing memory:

You have the right to decide if you want to have children or not, and to determine their number, timing, and spacing.

The clinic provides reproductive health services to low income members of the community, and plays an important role in ensuring that people have access to everything from safer sex supplies to prenatal care. I’m a big fan of theirs, and I’m a big fan of that sign, which I think embodies the core of reproductive rights and justice. Everyone has the right to make decisions about their own bodies, and one of the core values of the reproductive rights movement should be supporting people in this. Supporting all people, leading all kinds of lives, making all kinds of decisions.

Educating people so they can make more informed choices. Helping people access services to allow them to carry out the choices they are making, whether that’s a decision to get an abortion or to have a child or to get some birth control. Fighting sexual assault and rape as violations to bodily autonomy.

Recognising that while a choice might not be one you would make personally, you can still support someone in making that choice, and you can still enable that person’s ability to make decisions freely. As soon as we start making decisions about the ‘right’ kind of families and the ‘right’ number of children and the ‘right’ number of abortions to have, the concept of reproductive justice starts to fall apart. Who decides these things? Who is the arbiter of whether someone is making the ‘right’ choices?

There’s one group that gets left out of a lot of reproductive justice discussions: People with disabilities.

I’ve seen the decision to have a child with disabilities compared to child abuse, whether we’re talking about a child with a prenatal diagnosis, or a child born to parents with an increased risk of having a child with disabilities. I’ve seen disabled parents treated as though they are committing child abuse simply by being disabled, and being parents. I’ve seen people act like people with disabilities don’t need access to sexual education, because obviously we don’t have sex. I very rarely see any of these actions labeled as what they are, which is ableism.

Denial of reproductive rights to people with disabilities is ableism. Denial of our needs in the reproductive justice discussion is also ableism. Telling us we don’t belong at the table is ableism. We deserve reproductive justice too, and we have needs that are not being addressed by the current reproductive rights movement.

One of the problems with attempting to bring disability into reproductive justice conversations is that people act like the issues we cite are things of the past; they aren’t important, because they don’t happen anymore. People with disabilities are never involuntarily sterilised to prevent them from having children. Children are never taken from disabled parents. People are never shamed for deciding to continue pregnancies when a prenatal diagnosis indicates that the baby will be born with disabilities.

Well, these things are not in the past. They are happening right now.

A few recent cases from here in the United States: A child was taken from blind parents, solely because her parents were blind. It took intervention on the part of the National Federation of the Blind to restore the child to her home. The children of a disabled woman were denied visitation rights on the grounds that it would upset them to see their mother. A quadriplegic woman was told she couldn’t be a good parent. These are just three recent, high profile cases where parents were told they couldn’t care for their children because of their disabilities. Believe me, there’s more where that came from.

As for forcible sterilisation, the Ashley X case attracted a great deal of attention in feminist communities, but it’s far from the only one. Last week, we linked to a story about drugs that suppress sexual desire being used in autism ‘treatment.’ In Central and South America, forcible sterilisation, particularly of Indigenous women, is widespread and the United States has a history of sterilising Indigenous women as well. Tessa Savicki, a Massachusetts mother of nine, is suing after a hospital sterilised her without her consent during an unrelated medical procedure in 2006.

If sterilisation of people with disabilities isn’t a problem anymore, how come someone wrote a bill in 2009 to bar forced sterilisation of people with disabilities?

In a conversation at dinner the other night, I had to physically restrain myself when one of the people at the table attempted to argue that a mutual acquaintance was being ‘irresponsible’ by having a child at her age, ‘because it might be born disabled.’ This is not the only conversation like that I’ve witnessed, on or offline.

For people with disabilities, the reproductive justice discussion is extremely personal. People debate whether we should be allowed to have children, people believe that compromising our bodily autonomy is acceptable for the ‘greater good,’ and people debate whether or not we should have been born. For people who were born with disabilities, hearing people claim that parents having disabled children is akin to child abuse is rather appalling.

The thing about reproductive justice is that it’s not just for the people you like and the people you agree with. It’s not just for young, nondisabled, cisgender women who want to use birth control right now and have access to abortions, with the possibility of having children later. It’s also for parents of large families. It’s also for disabled parents. It’s also for religious parents. It’s also for disabled children. It’s also for people who are not interested in having children. It’s for everyone living in a body, no matter what kind of body it is, no matter what kind of life that person leads. Reproductive justice, true justice, should be all-encompassing.

Excluding people with disabilities from the conversation by either being actively hostile or dismissing our concerns is not reproductive justice.

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.