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Fertility, Gender, Sterilisation, Womanhood

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?

11 Comments

  1. Other Becky wrote:

    I’m curioius, s.e. — did you have any trouble finding a doctor who would do your sterilization? I opted for an IUD because I had heard stories from other people my age, who did not have and did not want children, about how difficult it had been for them to find a doctor who would sterilize them. (I realize this may vary significantly by geographical location.)

    Monday, June 4, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  2. Kate wrote:

    Thanks for writing this, s.e. I have seriously considered sterilization a couple times in the past (recent and not-so) primarily for the reasons you outline. I’m still not sure about procreation, sure, but it’s the my-body-as-political-football bit that makes my blood run cold and my stomach drop.
    And I’m so glad to see people write about the gender essentialism of the left’s reaction to the War on “Women”—hopefully we’ll be seeing longer pieces on that in the future?

    Monday, June 4, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Some Geek wrote:

    If we don’t see fertility as a measure of a person’s worth, then we shouldn’t use it to measure people’s worth.
    It sounds so obvious when you point it out…
    Great article, s.e.

    Monday, June 4, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  4. Slow Show wrote:

    Thank you for this. Even as a cis female, I find myself constantly battling these notions of femininity and fertility, I cannot possibly imagine how difficult it must be for you. But thank you for sharing this piece with everyone.

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 4:33 am | Permalink
  5. Corvus wrote:

    All I can think when I read this is “want”. I have never, ever had the slightest interest in children, and the political football nonsense is enough to make me long to abstain from sex entirely- which is not the way I want to live my life. I view my own fertility as a particularly uncomfortable cage, door hanging open, just waiting to trap me.

    Like an above commenter, I’ve been told/given the impression that finding a doctor willing to sterilize me would be near impossible (and I’ve been told this by the doctors I’ve consulted). Stories like yours are valuable because they contradict that notion and give hope… and hey, maybe if they hear it enough, such stories could even influence the medical zeitgeist itself.

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 7:25 am | Permalink
  6. Nanasha wrote:

    There *is* a problem with people who make the decision to sterilize themselves but do so for reasons that they want to reverse later. My husband exists because his mom got her tubes tied at a young age and never wanted children, yet changed her mind in her late 30′s.

    Honestly, in my own personal experience, I’d say that I’m more of a gender fluid person. I like the idea of being able to use my anatomical parts (the physical process of pregnancy was an exciting science experiment on myself), but it does make me sad that I will not be able to feel and experience male anatomy in a way that feels authentic to me personally.

    And as a woman with PCOS, I have higher testosterone than “most women”- I also have severe fertility issues that will probably worsen with age. Yet, I have all of the physical markers of a woman, and my body shape is one that historically was considered “fertile looking” (wide hips, short small waist, huge boobs, etc).

    I honestly think that even sterilizing oneself is not necessarily going to lead to more peace of mind. Remember, when the conservatives come for your reproductive choices, they’re going to come next for your body in its entirety. Who knows, next they’ll force you to wear long dresses and do your hair in a honeybee perm and forbid you to talk of anything but cooking and shoes. This is not just a question of losing your right choose your fertility and your gender expression but losing your inherent right to be yourself and all that it entails.

    I am reminded of “Harrison Bergeron”- the story about an oppressive government that forces everyone to be “equal” through fascist control of the government. I think that this is basically the conservative aim- to make everyone miserable and uncomfortable in their own skin- to make them unable to make choices about their own bodies.

    And it doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, have a uterus, have a penis, have a pair of shimmery wings that protrude from your back, etc. There is no one who wil be spared in a world where an entire group decides that THEY know how everyone should appear and behave.

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Permalink
  7. Nanasha wrote:

    P.S.: Congrats on finally achieving sterilization- I am honestly glad that people who truly know what they want out of their bodies and take full advantage of a society where at least for now we have a good measure of control over our own personal bodily integrity.

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Permalink
  8. Jenna wrote:

    Wow, the timing. Monday I am getting a hysterectomy. My surgery is mostly about reclaiming my abdomen from the fibroid rumors that are taking over and making my uterus about as large as it would be with a 17 week pregnancy.
    I’m in my 40′s and I am still getting pushback about my decision. “Oh, but babies!” “but,it’s over prescribed!”
    It may not be for everyone but I have been dreaming of this surgery for two years, and I want that uterus out!

    Wednesday, June 6, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Permalink
  9. Pavlov's Cat wrote:

    I’m a cis woman who can’t have children, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this. I am so sick of people defining ‘woman’ by the ability to get pregnant and then accusing me of being the problem when I call it out. And I know that’s not even close to what you have to put up with.

    Thursday, June 7, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  10. LynneSkysong wrote:

    I’m happy that you were able to get your surgery safely performed. I’ve heard 2nd hand stories (in Ohio) from my sister who 1) already had a child, 2) almost died having said child, and 3) would likely have the same complications with having future children BUT even with all of that, still had to go through a ton of loops over a frustrating year to FINALLY have that surgery that would yes, sterilize her, but more importantly give her control over her body and not make her fear for her life when it came to pregnancy. (The main reasons they didn’t want to sterilize her was 1) she was in her 20s and 2) she didn’t have TWO kids. And (I suspect) because she was white.)

    My beef is this: Why is it that adult women are assumed to be responsible and mature enough to go through the process of growing, birthing, and raising a child BUT NOT responsible and mature enough to make the decision that they DO NOT want a child to form inside them. I don’t want pregnancy. Besides the whole host of issues you’ve already discussed, I almost saw my sister die giving birth. I will never get over that. I also grow up with a foster sister for a time as a kid. I want to adopt when I’m ready. Period. But I am not allowed to make that decision about MY OWN body.

    Monday, June 11, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  11. theelectricturtle wrote:

    I agree that both the determination of gender by reproductive capacity and the refusal to grant sterilization to people with uteruses under almost all circumstances is outrageous.

    And biology is as cruel as society. I desperately wish there were a way for doctors to take my uterus (which sure as hell isn’t doing me any good) and give it to my friend, who would love nothing more than to bear children, but simply doesn’t have the anatomy for it. But as hesitant as doctors are to sterilize cis people, they don’t want trans people making babies.

    Monday, July 2, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink