Error Correction: It turns out that Writey McScriberson is living in Illinois. When I wrote this post, I was under the misimpression that WM was located in the UK. My bad. I have not changed the text below, but any commentary speculating on differences between the UK and the US were obviously motivated by my own misimpressions, not the actual life, experience, or writing of WM.
As I try to do when blatantly ripping off ideas from Shiv, I will be writing about something she mentions but does not explore in depth and let her main points speak for themselves, as they do so reliably and so well.
Recently Writer McScriberson, reachable at the twitter address*1 @afroSHIRL tweeted out the following:
I found this particularly interesting because in the USA for perhaps 20 years there were ongoing disagreements about the appropriate feminist position on sterilization between white feminists with stable income and a coalition consisting mainly of Black and multi-racial feminists born in the US with a few feminists with other racialized backgrounds and a few (typically low and insecure-income) white feminists thrown in. In this post I will, entirely-hyperbolically, refer to these disagreements as the Sterilization War.*2
The SW began with the development of a large enough second-wave feminist movement for large numbers of feminists to meet on the ground and discuss local feminist issues. It was aided by consciousness-raising groups which helped develop the positions on each side of the war and also helped the two primary sides to come into contact and learn that there was another position on voluntary sterilization with which they might disagree.
The two sides were largely divided in the manner that they were because the Eugenic history of the US had led many doctors to involuntarily sterilize – often (perhaps even as standard procedure) without consent or even information – poor and/or Black women who gave birth via C-section. “So long as we’re in there,” the thinking seems to have been, “might as well do some good for the world by ensuring fewer poor/Black babies, because we all know how horrible Black people and poor people are, amirite?”
However, at the same time, economically stable white women were being denied voluntary sterilization. It appears that the doctors denying sterilization overlapped significantly with the doctors performing sterilization without information or consent. This isn’t hard to understand, the same racist and eugenic thinking that led doctors to believe that Black people are of less value and that the world’s population should be less Black would also lead doctors to believe that white people are of more value, and that as many white babies should be born to economically stable white mothers as possible, because the world would benefit from being more white.
Even from the perspective of the racist, poor-hating doctors the system wasn’t perfect, not least because racial identification is not reliable, but in feminist circles there was a tremendous disagreement about how to address this unspoken eugenic policy. Access to birth control had long been an important feminist issue. Though Margaret Sanger*3 clearly held horribly racist beliefs and also clearly held eugenic beliefs about heritability of poverty, heritability of criminality, and a distinction between deserved and undeserved poverty, the organizations through which she worked sought first to educate. They believed that individuals had the right to choose to access or reject birth control even if they did have personal opinions (strongly influenced by the Eugenics movement) about which choice was correct for those individuals.
Out of this imperfect right-to-decide philosophy was born efforts to overturn laws that forbid access to medical contraception and sterilization. The culmination of the fight for access to temporary methods of contraception was the SCOTUS case Griswold v Connecticut 381 U.S. 479 (1965). The language used in that decision, including a “right of privacy” and scary language about policing “marital bedrooms”*4. That right to privacy was extended to unmarried people in 1972 (in Eisenstadt v. Baird) and was interpreted to include the right to abortion in 1973 (in Roe v Wade, but you knew that already).
Despite more than 15 years of court fights, the right to access abortion or contraception had won only what the Supreme Court had to give: restrictions on government prohibitions. While the government could no longer jail doctors for providing abortion or contraception (including sterilization), nothing before SCOTUS or within the normally understood scope of its power permitted it to force doctors to provide those services. While it was relatively easy to provide prescriptions for medical birth control, clinics equipped to interview patients and provide paper prescriptions did not necessarily have the surgical necessities to provide sterilization. These clinics were also located in lower-income neighborhoods and served a disproportionately low-income clientele. So economically stable white women continued to ask their own doctors for birth control. While temporary birth control was more and more forthcoming, many doctors drew a line at sterilizing a woman who might someday give birth to middle-class white babies.
And so white women who faced ongoing difficulties with accessing their preferred methods of birth control wanted to destigmatize sterilization. Other women, especially Black women and women on welfare (these groups being the primary targets) saw sterilization as a constant threat and as too-frequent violence inflicted on themselves by doctors who might feel even more entitled to sterilize them without their consent if the surgeries were made to seem as normal and sometimes even positive events.
Both sides clearly had good points and important issues of sexism and racism to address. However the control of establishment-respected feminist organizations (i.e. the organizations who could get their representatives on national television) was disproportionately white and monied, and too often white feminists did not hear the message that there were ways to gain increasing access to voluntary sterilization without raising risks of involuntary sterilization for others. It is not necessarily that Black feminists are inherently better feminists or better thinkers, but that white, monied control of feminism-amplifying organizations made it necessary for marginalized and racialized feminists to tailor their messages to white feminists, while the feminists who already had control of mouthpiece organizations faced no practical requirement to convince marginalized feminists of the rightness of a course of action or a rhetorical tactic. Those feminists who did not practice inter-feminist dialog would not be as skilled at inter-feminist dialog, and they tended to be the establishment feminists.
So in the US, the SW slowly, fitfully ended as intersectionality became more integrated into feminist thought. Mainstream feminists took up the fight for an end to involuntary sterilization and that battle was eventually (largely) won. The widespread moral condemnation for FGM was in fact an outgrowth of mainstream feminists learning to listen to Black feminists on the issue of involuntary sterilization. Without incorporating Black perspectives, there might be an instinctive revulsion to the sexist and violent mutilation of female bodied people, but the widespread media attention anti-FGM perspectives received would likely not have happened in an alternate world where mainstream feminism had not yet grappled with the issue of involuntary sterilization.
Intersex activists and advocates have also benefited from the work of Black and poor feminists on the issue of involuntary sterilization. With the success of those feminists in the SW, intersex feminists were able to build on the condemnation of involuntary sterilization, comparing the involuntary surgeries performed on intersex children to the involuntary surgeries mainstream feminism had already learned to condemn.
So the SW is largely over, and has been for some time: feminists largely agree that any work on the issue of voluntary sterilization must not overlook possible misuse of that work to support involuntary sterilization. The feminists originally working against involuntary sterilization have repeatedly emphasized the “involuntary” and made clear that it is not sterilization itself which is offensive or oppressive. This has also benefited transfeminists and trans advocates. Like economically stable white women, surgeries for transsexual people and other trans folk requesting surgical intervention has sometimes been denied using the justification that most if not all of the genital altering surgeries available include steps that have the effect of sterilizing the trans person.*5 Making sure the focus has been on voluntariness and not on sterilization itself has provided direct help to transfeminists learning to craft effective arguments to use with medical providers and indirect help through a slow shifting of the awareness of medical providers on the importance of the individual’s control over hir own reproduction and body.
But if the SW within feminism has been over for some time, it is not over for society at large – not in the USA, not in Canada, and not in the UK*6. Involuntary sterilizations continue to occur, though they appear to be much less common, possibly even quite rare, in those three countries today.*7 But access to sterilization for those who want it is still very much an issue. In the US while there are enough doctors willing to perform the procedure for women in urban areas, there are large patches of the country where access to such doctors is difficult or even impossible without lengthy travel. The largest barrier in the US to voluntary sterilization, however, has been the lack of insurance coverage. As a voluntary procedure, it was typically excluded from coverage. The ACA changed that for most persons, though Hobby Lobby restricted the scope of US requirements on insurers to provide coverage.
It is my acute awareness of the long history of this fight that led me to add bolding to the text mandating coverage of voluntary sterilization in Oregon’s HB 3391 in my post about it the other day. And then, immediately after writing about that victory in the 70+ year old fight for access to voluntary sterilization, Shiv posts about Writey McScriberson’s story, the story of a twitter user whose picture appears to be that of a Black woman and whose twitter address “@afroSHIRL” implies Black identity.
I find it entirely fascinating that this user was asking for sterilization and being denied on the basis of sexism. To me, it seems to speak to something about the relationship of sexism, racism, and eugenics in the UK. Is racism decreasing faster than sexism in the UK, such that even if sexist refusals to perform voluntary sterilization are less common than before, they are more common in the case of Black women whom UK doctors in the past might have been eager to sterilize for eugenic reasons? While the UK did (and does) have a eugenics movement, was it never quite as strong there as it was in the US? Or was it stronger?
The Catholic Conference of Bishops opposes individual choice in sterilization (because of course the celibate Catholic hierarchy has to tell the rest of the world how evil it is to choose not to reproduce). Does the Anglican church? NHS coverage for voluntary sterilization came before the ACA’s guarantee of coverage for most insured US residents. There are so many possibly significant differences that play into the experience of Black women being denied access to voluntary sterilization in a manner that used to be characteristic of a certain class of white women. Am I to be hopeful that perhaps this means Black babies are valued more than in years past? Am I to cry over this fight still being waged after so many years of feminist effort? And to what extent do the different histories of racism in the UK and the US make comparisons difficult (or meaningless or – the worst possible outcome – misleading)?
Nothing in the struggles against oppression is ever easy and setbacks are common, but victories do occur. The importance of Writey McScriberson’s story is that it highlights the difficulties, the setbacks and the victories all in 140 characters. Where once the medical profession’s primary thinking on Black women and sterilization was that sterilization was a good way to kill the Black body. Now it might be that this has lessened, but the medical profession has given us new evidence that it thinks of sterilization as the limit of tolerable Black agency. Forgive me if I’m not overly enthused at this development that seems to better tolerate the existence of Black people … only so long as they aren’t making important decisions for themselves.
Stay tuned to this space: if I can interview Writey McScriberson for a future post, I will.
*1: See my previous post about my uncertainty regarding this term. If I should be using another word than “address” please let me know in the comments of that post & keep this post for the actual issues of agency, ethics, feminism, and history that are raised here.
*2: Mostly I’ll do that because it gives me a handy abbreviation that will soon have confused George Lucas fans gaining feminist consciousness by accidentally reading this post and wondering what it has to do with Ewoks.
*3: Many people believe she founded Planned Parenthood, but this is incorrect. She founded the first reproductive health clinic in the US and also co-founded larger, coalition-style organizations of birth control advocates once others had followed her lead and opened up reproductive health clinics in other areas. These larger networks evolved into Planned Parenthood, but PP was not founded by Sanger directly.
*4: From Douglas’ decision: “Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship,”
*5: I don’t have good research on this, but I would expect to find that the objections to transsexual requests for genital surgeries were also more frequently directed to (or at the very least more strenuous in the case of) white patients. However, with sexism’s emphasis on the importance of male virility and fertility, it may be the case with trans persons AMAB that such objections were less race-focussed than for persons AFAB. It would be an interesting question to answer, though I doubt a reliable answer could be obtained. I simply don’t see a methodologically sound way of reaching widely generalizable conclusions.
*6: and surely not in other places as well, though I’m not personally equipped to speak to them, and had already done enough work in writing this blog post so I didn’t feel like researching the state of racism’s and sexism’s effects on access to reproductive health in, like, every country in the world. Of course, if you have sources on how racism and sexism are affecting reproductive health access anywhere in the world, please feel free to call it to my attention in the comments.
*7: It’s hard to know exact rates when this practice is always accompanied by lies and secrecy. Rarity in prosecutions might reflect a rarity in getting caught, a culture supportive of doctors performing involuntary surgeries, both of those, or a genuine rarity in involuntary sterilization itself. I believe the practice is much less common today than in the 60s, but precisely quantifying the drop is hard to do.
Special note: I was unsure where to attach this note. I’m afraid I minimize it by placing it at the end, but I couldn’t make it work elsewhere, at least I couldn’t make it work in a way that felt satisfying and natural to me. Anyway, here’s the note:
You should know, too, that my writing here on the history of the SW before 1990, though consistent a single incident in my own history, is almost entirely based on the great feminist Dorothy Roberts and the history laid out in her book, Killing the Black Body and a few separate papers of hers that largely overlap with the content of that book. Comments on developments after 1990, including speculation on feminist responses to FGM and my perspectives on intersex feminism of the 1990s-2000s is based on my own experience, original research by me, or by authors other than Dorothy Roberts. Of course, any errors in the parts about the SW before 1990 should still be attributed to me. I wasn’t reading from Killing the Black Body as I wrote this, and Roberts is too worthy a scholar to be saddled with my mistakes. As must be obvious by now, the title of this post is also meant in praise of and reference to that book and the scholar who wrote it.