The Politics of Sterilization

(1971) A leaflet distributed by the CWLU to bring attention to the problem of sterilization abuse.

(Editor's Note: Sterilization abuse was a serious issue that the CWLU addressed in a number of ways. This leaflet is an example of an early CWLU attempt to bring forced sterilization to the attention of the women's movement.)

Waiting in the doctor’s office, I picked up the July ‘71 issue of McCalls. I was interested to see that McCalls now has a monthly newsletter for women which they call “Right Now.” I was even more interested to see what the first, feature article in July’s “Right Now” was all about — a new, better—than—ever method of sterilization for women.
According to Eleanor Clift, who wrote the article, this new method, with the imposing technical name of laparoscopy bilateral partial salpingectomy, can be done either overnight or on a one—day outpatient basis. It is considerably cheaper (at about $3OO) than the older method which required a fairly major operation to tie the Fallopian tubes (which carry the egg from ovary to uterus) . This older method, called a tubal ligation, costs from about $900 to $1,200 or so. With the new method, a very small incision is made in the navel and a laparoscope (a long slender tube) is inserted. A second, also small incision is made below the navel. A small, electrified forceps is put into this incision, and with the guidance of a light shone through the laparoscope, the forceps is used to cauterize the Fallopian tubes. This operation (like the tubal ligation) is almost always irreversible; that is,. it rarely can be undone to allow the woman to bear children.
All of this takes about twenty minutes under anesthesia, and is followed by what “Right Now” described as “minor discomfort for a few hours.” There are a few limitations as to which women can have this type of minor surgery (very obese women cannot be operated on this way: neither can women with adhesions — scars — from previous surgery) , but doctors generally feel that this is a very beneficial and widely applicable procedure. It turns out, according to the article, that this method of sterilization has been known since 1914. So why is it being pushed now?

Here I feel that the women’s movement has a few comments to make. It seems clear that this kind of surgery offers a welcome opportunity to those women who have decided definitely that they do not want to have children — or to have more children, as the case might be — and who do not want to take the risks of currently available methods of birth control. To the degree that women are developing lives centered around things other than the traditional wife—and—mother role, this operation offers another alternative to us, one which we can be glad to have around.

But we must recognize the other side of the coin as well. It seems important to note that Dr. Clifford R. Wheeless, a Baltimore gynecologist who is singled out in the article as a pioneer in working with this type of operation, is currently going to India, where he will train physicians to perform this operation in tents set up in the countryside. “Right Now” mentions “concern with overpopulation” as one reason for the current interest in this operation. Then I myself checked into possibilities of having my own tubes tied (I had a standard type of tubal ligation last January, at a cost of about $900 and five days in the hospital), I heard that this type of operation was being done experimentally at a local outpatient clinic. I was lead to believe that the clinic treated mainly women on welfare from the black community; I was told that I myself was not eligible to be enrolled in the clinic.

What all of this brings to my mind is the fact that more efficient means of sterilization can be used against poor and non—white women, both here in the U.S. and abroad (as in India) to make it easier to induce or coerce them, against their will, to give up their right to determine for themselves whether they will have children. For those of us who are white and middle-class, it might seem unreal to suggest that this could happen. But women on welfare, women in the delivery room at Cook County, women in India whose children are starving are in far more vulnerable positions than we can imagine. We must remember that the right to control our own bodies means exactly that: the right to choose to have children, as well as the right to choose not to.