Here’s a sticky wicket for you: the mother of a 21-year-old mentally challenged woman in Britain is asking a court for permission to sterilize her daughter so she will not continue getting pregnant. The daughter, who is referred to in court as P to protect her anonymity, already has two young children who are being raised by P’s mother, Mrs. P, who lives with them. However, Mrs. P said she cannot financially support a larger family and that when she took her daughter to a family planning clinic, she refused to get a contraceptive injection (Depo Provera). As Mrs. P described it, if P were to become pregnant again, Mrs. P would put the baby up for adoption. The nature of P’s mental difficulties are not explained by the Guardian, but Mrs. P told the court that P does not seem to understand the gravity of the situation. “I tried to explain that any future babies will go to a new mum and dad,” Mrs. P said. “She doesn’t understand that she won’t ever see them again. She says, ‘I’m the mummy’. She doesn’t understand they will get a new mum.”
Mrs. P continued, “I want the best for my daughter. We are supporting and helping her, bringing up her children and keeping them together as family unit. Obviously we can’t carry on supporting more and more children. She doesn’t see anything wrong in her behavior.” The judge handling the case, however, said that expert evidence was not available to make a judgment and he declined to rule on an “extremely serious and important” issue without it. Sterilization, which is irreversible for women but still reversible for men, is one of the most controversial aspects of reproductive rights. Plenty of people believe, with very good reasons, that people who cannot care for their own children are a burden on social services and/or their families and should be incentivized to get sterilized. A group called Project Prevention, for example, pays alcoholics and drug addicts $300 to get sterilized.
On principle, I believe everyone gets to make their own health decisions about reproduction without force or coersion: male or female, old or young, regardless of your natural-born or chemically-induced mental capacity. Taking away someone’s ability to reproduce (and adding whatever health-related issues that are caused by the sterilization) can be permanent. Based on my value system, it’s morally wrong to make permanent decisions for other people. And most importantly, I question who qualifies such decisions. How drug addicted or epically drunk or disabled do you have to be to hit the threshold? Ten years of heroin usage? One year? Down Syndrome? Deafness? It’s a slippery slope. As I wrote two years ago about Project Prevention, “[Sterilization] is problematic for lots of reasons, mainly because it smells all-too-much like the anti-choice chapters in U.S. history when women who were deemed ‘undesirable’ to populate, like Puerto Ricans or Native Americans, were forcibly sterilized by the government.” I’d never be comfortable playing God like that.
Still, I can 100 percent see Mrs. P’s point-of-view on providing the best life that she can for P and her existing children. The daughter’s ability to make decisions in her and her children’s own best interests are obviously compromised here. Mrs. P cannot very well stop her 21-year-old daughter from having sex; the least she can do is stop her daughter from getting pregnant and incuring prenatal care, childbirth costs, health problems associated with pregnancy, etc. Although abortion is not discussed in the Guardian article, I would imagine that the daughter would not consent to one or perhaps doesn’t understand what one is, considering the fact she has already had two kids. (That’s just speculation, though.) If I were in Mrs. P’s shoes as a caretaker — not a reproductive rights supporter, first and foremost — I’d probably be desperately looking for ways to stop my daughter for getting pregnant, too, in the interest of everyone involved.
The case will be taken up again in April; Mrs. P said she would prefer that P be sterilized but she would also be happy with a forced contraceptive implant if sterilization is ruled out. I’ll be watching this case with interest.
What are your opinions on the topic of sterilization? Keep it civil and respectful in the comments or else Amelia will issue a smackdown.