Desperately Seeking Sterilization: the politics of privilege

My post-collegiate boyfriend was an affable Dane who later became a public school teacher. Children loved him, and (I think) he loved children, but he didn’t want to have any of his own. That was his story, anyway. He spoke loudly and often about not wanting to breed, or parent, or do anything involving the permanent presence of children. It may have had something to do with the fact that he was an active alcoholic who could barely take care of himself. It may have had something to do with his age, or it may have been that he simply, unequivocally did not want children.

He once told me a story about going to his doctor at twenty-five and requesting a vasectomy.

I think that you should give it some time, the doctor demurred, wait until you’re a bit older, you might change your mind.

That’s the problem, my ex-boyfriend said, I want it done now, while I’m still thinking clearly.

Was the story true? I have no idea. At the time I remember thinking, of this man I loved so irrationally and so much, this is obviously not going to work out. Someday, my socially constructed biological clock is going to start to tick.

Five years later, after having a baby who subsequently died, I found myself in an obstetrician’s office, asking to be sterilized.

But my obstetrician wasn’t going to just sterilize me willy-nilly. She made me beg for it.

I might want to have sex again, I said, but I don’t think I’ll ever want to have another baby.

It would be a great tragedy, she said, tapping her pen to my medical chart, for you never to have another child.

It would be a great tragedy, I replied, to have another baby die.

Now is not the time to make that decision, Adina, she scolded, but if in two years you still feel the same way, then by all means, we can do it. But you are not going to be sterilized. You are going to have more babies, and they will be healthy, and they will not die.

You don’t know that, I replied. You have no basis for making that statement. I am not irrational.

No one’s accusing you of being irrational, Adina, she replied. It’s just that – you obviously wanted children at some point, and there’s a very good chance that you will want to have more children in the future. You have the right to have another baby.

I wanted Talya, I said. I wanted that particular child. I don’t want another one.

This exchange went on for ten or fifteen minutes. In the end, of course, the doctor refused to sterilize me. Maybe this is for the best; maybe I am too wounded at the moment to make these kinds of permanent decisions. Inconceivable as it seems to me today, it’s possible I will want to have another baby biologically in the future. And a daughter of the reproductive rights movement, I want to retain that choice.

Yet. I wonder about the politics of my OB visit: despite heightened risk status due to the death of my first child, I am apparently a good candidate to have another baby. In fact, I “deserve” to have another baby. I read between the lines: I am like her, and therefore worthy to breed. I am white; I am Jewish; I have an advanced degree. I dress professionally. I’m ostensibly middle-class, and arrive to my appointments early, with private health insurance and a copy of the The New Yorker to read while I wait.

My doctor’s intentions were good, I am sure; ultimately, she sought to ensure that I did not make an irreversible decision in a state of heightened emotion. She shielded me, in part because my right to reproduce is self-evident. In the court of public opinion, even though my daughter died, I am worthy to parent again, to reproduce, to raise a child or children. As a function of capital, I am protected in ways that many mothers who lose babies are not. The institutions will protect me, because I know how to negotiate them. My right to reproduce will be guarded, because I embody something resembling “appropriate” womanhood.

I think about the sterilization I did not really want, and why it was denied me. My demand for sterilization was rejected, out of a paternalistic medical determination that I should retain my right to choice, so long as I choose reproduction or its possibility. It’s a dubious entitlement, and a constraining one. It’s a strange thing, also — to realize, paradoxically, that even in the context of my daughter’s death, I am privileged.

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  1. Posted March 14, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    I’m very sorry for your loss, and wish you healing from your pain.

    After my sister had her daughter, she knew that she didn’t want to have another child, yet the doctor refused her as well. However, my sister is not middle-class, not entirely able-bodied and healthy, yet she was still refused. She was however, 23 years old when she attempted to be sterilized. They told her she would change her mind, and 5 years later, she hasn’t, but it still doesn’t make a difference to her doctor. This happens to a lot of young women and men too. I think there is a sexist element to it, and I think that a 23 year old male might have a hard time, but would find a doctor who would give them a vasectomy, and with a 23 year old female, I think it would be basically impossible.

    The doctor also told my sister to have a second child and she would allow sterilization while she was in her 20s, but if she only had one child, the doctor told her, she needed to wait and she would allow it once my sister was in her thirties. I was disturbed by the way she spoke to my sister, as if women should ideally have two children, as if my sister could not decide for herself if she wanted another child or not. It offended my sister.

  2. Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    I’m intrigued by this sentence “Someday, my socially constructed biological clock is going to start to tick”.

    I feel like my biological clock is starting to tick, and I feel like it is a rebellion against social constructs. We obviously don’t live in a world that respects a woman’s ability to give life or the nurturing qualities typically viewed as feminine. When I say I want a baby even other mothers look at me like I’m trying to set us back sixty years. I proudly want to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, even though this is always said with copious amounts of misogyny.

    • Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink


      I’ve noticed something similar of the women in my own life. I can’t say to what degree societal pressure affects each of them as individuals, but I can say most of the women in my life are both career minded and have support systems of friends and partners who support their career goals. Yet we’re all now reaching the stereotypical age for the ‘clock’ to start ticking, and for many, but obviously not all, it has. So that’s an interesting take that even in situations where motherhood is certainly not viewed as the defining characteristic of a woman, and where careers are by contrast highly valued, for some that instinct is still there. And whether it’s still just societal pressure, or an evolved biological function, is probably different for each person. I can see from a species-survival position the need to push creatures to want to procreate, but we’ve also evolved past many of our baser urges.

  3. Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Forgot my original thought. I was going to share that I know two like-minded men who also sought sterility. One at age 23 and the other at age 28. Neither had had children and both were met with the same resistance as the original post. Doctors seem to be very hesitant to perform such a procedure on younger people and it doesn’t seem exclusive to one gender. One of them did a lot of research and found that in many cases for married men, they were being asked to have their wives sign the consent form. I imagine the same has happened to women as well.

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