Conservative politicians in the US are attacking reproductive rights in every way imaginable these days. From the House voting to defund Planned Parenthood, to a bill in Virginia that would limit accessibility to first-trimester abortions, to proposed legislation in Georgia that may make miscarriages punishable by death, reproductive health is facing some serious opposition. Though many of the anti-choice bills under consideration relate directly to abortion, some do not. Miscarriages, birth control and other matters connected to women’s health are among the issues being challenged by legislators, raising the question of when, if ever, is it appropriate to control someone’s bodily autonomy.
Interestingly, this question is also being discussed in the UK at the moment. But instead of relating to unwanted pregnancies, this discussion is focusing on preventing women — in this case, one woman in particular — from having pregnancies that they do want.
The case involves a woman with disabilities who is pregnant for the second time. Her mother is petitioning a court to allow her to be sterilized, thus preventing future pregnancies. Last week, the court ruled that more evidence is needed before a decision can be reached.
The 21-year-old woman, who has a significant learning disability and has been identified only as P, already has one child who is being cared for by her mother, Mrs. P. The woman is scheduled to give birth via cesarean section on Wednesday and her mother had proposed that doctors could sterilize her daughter at the same time.
“From my point of view, I want the best for my daughter,” Mrs. P told the court. “Obviously, we can’t carry on supporting more and more children.”
The facts of the situation are incredibly vague. For instance, we don’t know what P’s disability is. We don’t know how P’s status as a woman with disabilities relates to her ability to raise children. We don’t know whether P is truly unable to take care of her child or if Mrs. P won’t let her. We don’t know if P wants to be sterilized, or if she comprehends what that process would mean. We don’t know anything about P’s sexual relationships with men, or whether she is in a committed relationship.
But ultimately, none of that matters, because one thing is certain: What Mrs. P is advocating, in no uncertain terms, is the product of eugenics. Though eugenics is often discussed in the context of Nazi Germany, the movement has a much longer history and is often cited as the cause for the sterilization of people with disabilities. In the US, for instance, the early 20th century eugenics movement led to the compulsory sterilization of over 65,000 people with disabilities and people of color, an attempt to prevent reproducing within those communities. Though P’s case is not about the mass sterilization of people with disabilities in the UK, a victory for Mrs. P would set a precedent that would allow future forced sterilizations to take place.
Now, if P wanted to be sterilized, that would be different. Voluntary sterilization is a valid reproductive choice. But the fact that this issue has been brought to court is a strong indication that P isn’t choosing to be sterilized — her mother has chosen it for her. Therefore, this is no different than any other instance of restrictions on reproductive rights, and advocates of reproductive rights should oppose this case with the same vigor that is now infusing the fight to save Planned Parenthood’s federal funding.
Which is precisely why it shocks me to read about advocates of reproductive choice supporting Mrs. P. Parenting blogger Jeanne Sager writes:
It’s a terrifying scenario that goes against everything I, as a feminist, have been taught about women and reproductive freedom. And yet, I can’t help understanding where Mrs. P. stands. Because one of the chief reasons I support reproductive freedom is that a mother should not bring a child into this world who she can’t support.
If P truly is an unfit parent, her children can be removed from her custody. But governments and families should never be in the business of determining whether or not specific women can be allowed to reproduce. Forced sterilization is dehumanizing. It completely ignores the reality that women with disabilities have personal autonomy, and that they should be entitled to use their reproductive organs as they wish. Women with disabilities are women, and they deserve the same rights and freedom of bodily choice as any other woman. And advocates of reproductive rights should defend their bodies as fiercely as they defend those of able-bodied women.