Throwback Thursdays! We’re bringing back some of our favorite pieces from the last 30 years of Scribendi.

Instinctual Sterilization

Jennifer Mason – University of New Mexico – 2004

According to New Mexico legislature, any woman can have a tubal ligation upon turning 21 years of age. This is a procedure where the fallopian tubes are cut via a laser or clamped shut to prohibit the passage of eggs from the ovaries to the uterus. Studies
have shown that a tubal ligation is a relatively permanent operation as the chances for a successful pregnancy after a reversed ligation are slim to none. I learned these facts when I was 13 years old.
My mother presented a medical brochure on the procedure when I said I never wanted to have children. I think she had hoped to deter me from such a finite operation. The day following my 21st birthday, I scheduled a consultation with a local OB/GYN
surgeon for a tubal. I was turned away because of a loophole in the legal diction: any woman, 21 years or older, was legally able to get a tubal, while any surgeon was legally able to refuse performing the procedure. I crawled away from the doctor’s office that day
shocked from the rejection, as well as from the reasons for the rejection.
I saw a tubal ligation as a means for reproductive liberation; a chance to enjoy sex with my partner without worrying if there were enough chemicals in my body to prevent pregnancy. The doctor—a female—did not see the operation in the same light. She
believed I was looking for an easy way out of the weight gain caused by regular birth control methods like the pill. The woman castigated me for shirking my “responsibilities.” She could not fathom how a healthy female, capable of reproduction, would choose not to do so. She told me all women were meant to have babies and I must be a terrible person to not want to.
After the first consultation, I wasn’t sure who to turn to. If a fellow-female thought I was somehow morally corrupted for not wanting to have children, how would a male physician respond? In my mind, a male surgeon seemed far more likely to reject a
young, fertile female seeking sterility. That certainly turned out to be the case. The men called me selfish; there were millions of women taking hormone drugs or doing far more drastic things trying to get pregnant, wishing they were fertile. Here I was, trying to get sterilized. They predicted I would regret my decision, because sooner or later, all women wanted a baby. It was inevitable, because women are “natural” mothers—I just had to wait for those “motherly instincts” to kick in.
The OB/GYN’s were not the only people telling me I was crazy before slamming the door in my face. I lost many of my good friends during this time—all females—because they felt, like the surgeons, that my convictions were wrong, illogical, immoral and unsound. What was wrong with me that I did not want to bear babies? How was my brain misshapen that I did not want to experience the joys of motherhood? Where had my parents failed to instill morals that I was rejecting my responsibility to reproduce?
As the rejections piled up, I began to wonder if I were really living in 2001. What had happened to all the landmark cases in the Supreme Court, where reproductive rights had been won during the mid-1960s? I felt as though I had been shot back in time over
two hundred years when girls were expected to become first wives, then mothers. Throughout the nineteenth century, predominantly male, Protestant physicians led a crusade to prevent the overpopulation of Catholic immigrants. These physicians teamed up with the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and through their leader, Anthony Comstock, convinced Congress to pass the “Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.” Collectively referred to as the Comstock Law, this legislation made the distribution and use of contraception illegal. Women were confined to the roles of wife and mother. Any women who wanted to do anything else were immoral and corrupted. Those wanting legal contraception would have to wait until 1965, when the United States Supreme Court rejected the prohibition on contraception use and distribution. The American legal system had finally recognized that a person’s right not to reproduce was as important as the right to reproduce. The surgeons I met did not recognize this.
My reasons for seeking a tubal ligation, I assure you, were not superficial, or spur-of-the-moment, as every doctor preferred to assume. Remember, I’d decided on this operation eight years ago. As a 13-year-old, I knew enough about pregnancy to know that
it was painful, if nothing else. I knew it was mentally and financially taxing. There were entire sections in bookstores with writings on how women should eat, sleep and exercise differently while pregnant. The psychological and physical adjustments a woman made during pregnancy were obvious and huge. I felt too young to have to make those adjustments, and yet sex was so tempting…
the methods for preventing pregnancy so weak, especially with the women in my family.
My grandmother used the pill after having two sons, and still wound up with a “little surprise.” This little surprise, my mother, would wind up with two of her own little surprises while using the pill and trying to complete the nursing program in college. The
pill and a 98%-effective condom allowed my sister to have her first son when she was seventeen, making her the third generation of females in our family to undermine the 87% effectiveness of the birth control pill. I opted for the new form of contraception:
Depo-Provera, which was 99.9% effective. I hoped it would be enough.
During the next five years, I watched my sister struggle to raise her son, complete her education and secure an independent livelihood. Also in that time, seven of the 29 girls in my class got pregnant. The rewards, frustrations, sacrifices and detriments of
being a young parent were all around me. I was elated to not only graduate, but to complete three years of college without becoming pregnant.
Such luck wouldn’t last forever, especially as the complications associated with long-term use of Depo-Provera began to set in. My cousin and my sister suffered from endometriosis, a condition where painful, swollen cysts form on the ovaries. This condition usually followed many agonizing months of cluster headaches and gut-wrenching menstrual cramps before the cysts were removed in surgeries that damaged the ovaries and decreased fertility.
Most medical professionals turn to Depo-Provera as a solution for curbing symptoms of endometriosis; however, the serum seemed to have the opposite effect in my family. While using Depo, both girls went through frequent surgeries to remove the
unusually rapid-growing cysts. Only when their doctors took them off the injected contraception did their conditions improve. After using Depo for four years, I began to notice the headaches and the severe cramps. I worried that I was well on my way to
sharing in their fate.
With the only “effective” form of birth control reeking havoc on my body, a tubal ligation was the only choice I had. With the women in my family standing as a living testament to the utter inadequacy of the an 87% effective rate, a tubal ligation was my
only alternative. With many years of college still ahead of me and an uncharted world of limitless opportunities, a tubal ligation was the only logical decision. More than that, the tubal ligation was my right to not reproduce. And yet, it struck the doctors as irrational and impossible.
Never had I been so disheartened with mankind and womankind. Both had shunned me with a cold shoulder. I felt like Margaret Sanger in Comstalk’s era, facing total banishment for wanting to do something other than get married and bear babies. Even after six months of rejections, I absolutely refused to believe that being a woman meant getting pregnant. In my mind, having a uterus did not automatically equal baby; it merely implied possibility, or capability, not inevitability.
Don’t get me wrong. I was not opposed to one day raising children, to wiping runny noses, settling monotonous arguments, or soothing fitful screams. There was nothing wrong with my morals. I simply did not want to saddle my body and mind with the definite physical impediment and potential psychological trauma of pregnancy. What’s more, I certainly did not want to endure the excruciating pain of labor. None of that felt natural or instinctual to me. I was prepared to accept the permanence of a tubal ligation because motherhood was neither dependent upon nor congruous with pregnancy. Yes—awoman could be a mother even though she had not carried her children in her body for nine months.
My instincts had kicked in. They were telling me I was no less a woman because I chose not to endure the physical pain of labor and delivery. I would be no less a mother if my children came not from my womb, but from another woman’s. I was no less human,
no less compassionate for human life, because I wanted to block the avenues of pregnancy in my own body.
Just in case you are struggling to understand my rationale, I pose the following questions: Does a person fail to become a carpenter if he always builds things for others and never himself? Of course, not. You would praise such a carpenter for his altruism and care for others. Would you doubt the skills of that carpenter if he had never endured the pain of striking his thumb instead of the nail? It is more likely you would congratulate the carpenter for exhibiting such careful regard for his own well-being. In much the same way, the world ought to commend the mother who chooses to adopt a child. We should congratulate the selflessness and compassion that goes into adopting children left to wander the foster care system. We could praise the woman
who does not endure the pain of childbirth, but endures the strains of parenting.
Two weeks before my 22nd birthday, I finally convinced a doctor of these very facts. And the day after surgery, lying in bed, with a few, itchy stitches and a set of filche clamps on my fallopian tubes—the internal symbol of my reproductive liberation—knowing I could still become a genuine mother regardless of pregnancy or birthing, I never felt more naturally female, more thoroughly human.