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Bioethics Forum Essay

In Search of Sterility

In the November-December issue of the Hastings Center Report I wrote about voluntary sterilization for childfree women. The article came about through my inability to get sterilized as a childfree woman. I had never wanted children. In college I met a man who felt the same way. We fell in love and were married, and by the time we were 26 we felt ready to make a permanent commitment to our ideals and morals through contraceptive sterilization.

During my annual check-up, I told my female doctor that I had researched and considered the various methods of permanent contraception and I wanted to be sterilized via tubal ligation. At the time I was in graduate school in the Boston area, working on what would be my first master’s degree.

Without asking why I did not want children, the doctor dismissed me as “too young” to get sterilized and told me to “come back in a few years when I had a kid.” Although I protested that I would not be “having any kids ever,” I did not push for sterilization because I thought there must be a law preventing me from getting sterilized.

The doctor then said that she could give me an intrauterine device, which she said “was usually only given to women who had children.” She presented the IUD in a way that made it seem like I was getting special treatment and should be grateful. Since my first option of sterilization was denied, I could either choose the IUD or go back to the pill. The doctor persuaded me to use the IUD, but I left feeling that I had been slighted.

Five years later my husband and I had another decision to make. By this time I had earned two master’s degrees and was in a PhD program. My husband had earned a second bachelor’s degree and was employed at a dot-com. We had celebrated seven years of marriage and were 31 years old. We discussed our options for sterilization. In my research I had discovered that childfree men could obtain vasectomies with almost no challenges, so we decided that he would get sterilized because the procedure was simpler for men, the recovery time would be shorter, and he had health insurance that would cover it.

He made an appointment for a general check-up with his doctor, expressed his interest in sterilization, and was referred to a urologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston. I was nervous the day he had his consultation, fearing that he would be denied the vasectomy because he did not have children, or that the doctor would say he was “too young.”

However, the doctor was accommodating, and after my husband told him that he wanted the vasectomy, the doctor began to describe the permanence of the procedure to ensure that my spouse was aware that any current or future partners would not be able to get pregnant. My husband said he was already married (but didn’t say for how long) and that we were on the same page about not having children. The doctor did not inquire why he did not want children, but my husband volunteered the information, saying that we wanted a permanent form of contraception and that if we were to be parents it would be via “an ethical method such as adoption.”

That was enough to satisfy the physician. As he led my husband out to make the appointment that would render him sterile he told the secretary, “This man would like to make his life a whole lot easier.” Within a few weeks my husband had the procedure and we solidified our commitment to not have children.

I have often wondered why my husband could so easily get sterilized and I could not. On one hand there were many similarities between our two requests. Both were made in a major, liberal city on the East Coast. We were both in the same demographic in terms of being healthy, white, childfree, Protestant, educated, and married. On the other hand, when I requested sterilization I had more formal education than my spouse–education level corresponds to permanent childlessness in women.  Of course I was in my mid-20s when I requested sterilization and he was in his early 30s. We had also been married for longer when he obtained sterilization, but this factor did not come up in either case.

Ultimately I believe that I was denied sterilization based primarily on my sex rather than my potential for regret or lack of children. The combination of social pressure to be a biological mother, the cultural idea that all women will eventually want children, and the continual association between motherhood and fulfillment were all working against my request for sterilization. My husband did not have to contend with any of these factors.

Since one of us eventually got sterilized, it is fair to ask if there was any harm in waiting the extra five years. In many ways, it was harmful to both of us. I was still worried about an unwanted pregnancy. We were unable to formally move forward with our commitment to not be procreative parents. The “expiration date” of the IUD loomed in my mind, and I was still on a hormonal form of contraception. Our minds were made up at 26 that sterilization was the best form of contraception for us, and nothing in the five years between my failed sterilization request and my husband’s successful request would have changed our minds about conceiving. I doubt that anything in the future will either. At age 31, I am relieved that our search for sterility is over.

Cristina Richie is a doctoral student in theological ethics at Boston College and a former visiting scholar at The Hastings Center.

Posted by Susan Gilbert at 11/01/2013 09:48:03 AM |


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