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Sterile Digressions

July 31st, 2007 · 4 Comments

Ann at Feministing had a post last week about the problem—familiar to me because my old college debate partner used to get furious about it—of doctors refusing to perform elective tubal ligations on adult women in their 20s. The thinking, apparently, is that those women are old enough to make the irreversible decision to have a child, but not old enough to decide not to. This got another blogger, who goes by Radical Doula, “pretty angry“:

I think that you will find that for women of color, low income women, or immigrant women, this issue is completely different. Rather than having trouble getting sterilization surgeries, they are being FORCIBLY sterilized.
Generally I love the debates and discussions on Feministing, I think they provide a wide range of perspectives and foster great dialogue. I was really disappointed by this post however, and even more disappointed to see that in the more than 100 comments posted (mine was 20-something) only one other person even acknowledged the flip-side of this issue for women of color, low income women, and immigrants.

And Ann duly posts a follow-up stressing that she “completely missed this angle, and really appreciate her bringing it up.”

Now, I think it’s generally all to the good if affluent white folks of either sex maintain some healthy perspective about the relative severity of the injustices they suffer. But it’s also just tedious to insist that any complaint from those quarters has to be coupled with a ritualistic invocation of the still-greater suffering of other groups, especially when it’s as strained as the post for which Ann’s so appreciative .

The language there is conspicuously present tense—about people who “are being forcibly sterilized”—but, of course, actual compulsory sterilization policies have been dead for a generation. They were, needless to say, grotesque and execrable abuses of basic rights, but they’re also not “an angle” on the topic initially under discussion: It really is “needless to say” in this context. The attempt to insist on their relevance evokes nothing so much as the old story about Bobby Fischer breaking into a coversation about the likelihood of nuclear war to demand: “But what the hell has this got to do with chess?”

Actually, long-defunct but genuine programs of compulsory sterilization are the least dubious bit of evidence adduced in the RD post. There’s also a reference, without citation, to “Undocumented women in PA” being “allowed access to tubal ligations (without cost) but no help for other shorter term birth control methods.” I’m not sure, but perhaps that’s a reference to this story about a creepy-sounding private group group offering drug-addicted women in poor areas of Philly $200 to get sterilized. If so, notwithstanding the myriad ways the behavior of this one wacky group is offensive, it’s also a plain abuse of language to class it with compulsory sterilization, or indeed to treat it as the “flip side” of a widespread and accepted policy among current medical professionals. A practice, I should note, that we’re given no reason to think is normally suspended when 20-something women of color come in seeking tubal ligations.

So let me suggest that even if you’re big on inclusiveness, not everything needs to be about chess. It’s OK to criticize the Bush administration without a three-paragraph caveat stipulating that the Shoah was totally worse! It’s OK to condemn current restrictions on sterilization without a detour through mid-century eugenics programs! And it might not even be classist or racist to rebuff demands that you do with a simple: “You know what? That’s just not relevant.”

Tags: Sexual Politics



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 FinFangFoom // Jul 31, 2007 at 10:36 am

    I hate to disagree with you on this one, but I understand how her argument fits in with the issue based on her view (which is pretty far out there as far as I am concerned). First, her definition of coercion includes social and economic pressure. So minority women are actually being “forced” by doctors to get sterilization procedures. Second, the dichotomy in the treatment of young white women and young minority women in this area is due to a patriarchal/racial, sub/conscious eugenics conspiracy thingy. The issues aren’t severable in her view. So while they don’t actually have anything to do with one another, within the “four corners” of her argument they do.

  • 2 LP // Jul 31, 2007 at 11:49 am

    I think Fin’s right here about why radical feminists think these issues are intertwined. From a less radical point of view, without regarding social pressure as coercion per se, it still seems worth bringing up in a conversation about the stigma and medical disapproval associated with voluntary sterilization. If you want to talk about why some doctors don’t respect this choice, it seems at least interesting to note that some of the very same doctors have the opposite attitude toward women of a different race/social status. To me, this inconsistency makes me suspect that it’s not just about women being ‘old enough to make the irreversible decision to have a child, but not old enough to decide not to.’

  • 3 elyzabethe // Jul 31, 2007 at 11:57 am

    Oh goodness. Agreed. This is certainly not the first time I’ve seen this argument derail otherwise sensible conversation about various reproductive issues, and people are always pointing to that ONE pay-drug-addicts-to-be-steralized group.

  • 4 Kevin B. O'Reilly // Jul 31, 2007 at 9:38 pm

    I agree with the first two posters. The stories of poor black women having their fourth or fifth child out of wedlock being urged by white or Asian health professionals to just get their tubes tied already are as common as tales of driving while black police enforcement — and likely to be just as true. This is not “coercion” the way a libertarian defines it, but when it comes to medical decisions especially employ an inappropriately broad definition of coercive behavior.