I chose to get sterilised for many reasons, but one of them was the overarching association between fertility and femaleness that runs like a dark bloody thread throughout our society, no matter how much people push back against it. If you have a uterus and ovaries and fallopian tubes and they are capable of producing eggs, nudging them to fertilisation, sheltering a developing fetus, providing it with nutrients and a safe space to grow for 40 weeks, you are a woman. And if you do not, you are something else. You are not-woman, you are not-quite-woman, you are fake-woman.
The reproductive rights debate in the United States swirls tightly around the uterus, putting those who have reproductive capacity at the middle and those who do not somewhere else. Some of us are swept up into the eddy and labeled as women; we are part of the right’s ‘war on women’ even though we are not women. Others are coldly shut out because they lack fertility, because they are fake-women, because they had hysterectomies or are post-menopausal and thus aren’t fertile or because they have some other anatomy altogether.
These is such a tight linkage between fertility and womanhood, an association that dates back over thousands of years. The roughly monthly production of blood as evidence of sexual maturity but also womanhood.
But, also, property. And this is one of the reasons I choose to get sterilised, because I was tired of being treated like property, of having my body tugged at and gnawed over and chewed upon by all sides of the political spectrum. The right says that people like me, uterus-havers who are not women, uterus-havers who do not want children, do not exist, and attempts to pass nanny legislation to protect us from ourselves even as such legislation suffocates us in a snarl of cissexism and gender essentialism and control. Meanwhile the left calls me a woman for political expedience; you’re fertile, you’re a woman, you must join the fight with other women.
I got sterilised, of course, because I didn’t want to have children. That was the first and primary reason: you do not have an invasive and irreversible surgical procedure without committing to the end result, which is permanent sterility, as I was reminded over and over again during the process, from the first pre-operative consult to the very last thing I was asked before going under anesthesia. I chose sterilisation because I knew I would never want to have children.
But I also got sterilised because I was afraid of the culture I’m living in and I wanted to take control of my body. Unlike many people with uteri who might want to have children at some point, I could protect myself by simply cutting off the option of getting pregnant. I could step outside the paradigm currently being created by taking my body off the field of play; my body is still a political football, but for different reasons, and when I am fighting for the lives and bodies of people with uteri, people who have the right to make choices about what happens in and with and around their bodies, I do so now with the knowledge that I do so from a place of distance. This is still my fight because all fights are my fight, but it’s no longer as immediate.
Waking up in the recovery room I called for water and then I thought ‘it is highly unlikely that I will ever have to fear, on a personal level, the hateful legislation being advanced by the political right.’ Except it was somewhat less articulate than that because I was looped on anesthesia. My chance of getting pregnant is 1 in 200. If it were to occur, it would most likely be an ectopic pregnancy, something that would be a threat to my life, in which case medical treatment for it would be ‘allowed’ under all but the most ludicrously restrictive laws currently under consideration and likely to be advanced in the future.
It is strange to suddenly sit on the other side of the table in the reproductive rights conversation, to be working in solidarity with the same people I was one of only a few days ago. How quickly things can shift. And how repulsively, too; now that I am sterile, is my gender more ‘valid’? Will people finally admit I am not a woman since I can’t reproduce? Despite the fact that many women can’t reproduce, and many people who are not women can and do carry pregnancies to term?
I chose sterilisation because it freed me, because the looming fear of losing control of my body and being owned could be turned away at the point of a scalpel. I choose sterilisation because the very thought of it made my back feel lighter, made me feel less afraid.
And I chose sterilisation because I knew it would force people to confront their attitudes about what makes a ‘woman’ and what ‘femininity’ is or means. Emily is a woman. I am not. We both have breasts and hips and voices in the mid-range. We are both incapable of bearing children. Reproductive capacity has no bearing on your gender and people cannot be shuffled into neat categories on the basis of what they look like or what you think you know about their genitals or reproductive capacity.
Fertility is such a stark marker, and is used so effectively as a tool for control that it’s honestly frightening. People capable of getting pregnant are in the profoundly unenviable position of knowing that the state, and others, can exert control and ownership over their bodies at any time. They—I am still getting used to they-not-we—have so much to lose in the battle that is being waged over their bodies. It is something that has long terrified me, and still terrifies me, and I hope that I never lose my empathy.
To be ‘woman’ is about more than your capability of bearing children and what your anatomy looks like, but it is telling that people of all political stripes use anatomy to oppress, control, and label people. That they divide us on the basis of characteristics that are not as hard-set as they seem to think they are; for those who insist on misgendering me as a woman, what about me has changed now that I cannot have children? For those who insist that I am part of the right’s ‘war on women,’ what about me has changed now that my ova are unlikely to ever make their way to my uterus? These same people who argue that Emily is not a woman are the ones forcibly labeling me as a woman; why is there so much fixation on refusing to acknowledge our identities?
Why does the identification of ‘woman’ revolve so much around fertility, still, even in ‘feminist’ circles which claim to know better than to resort to gender essentialism?