Desperately seeking sterilization: the politics of privilege
- Published: 09 April 2011
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10 April 2011
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 25 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 said. 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 10 or 15 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 as 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 at least 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 how, and why. My demand for sterilization was denied me, 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.
Adina Giannelli is a graduate student in public health. She blogs at Today for Talya.