Is forced sterilization ever OK?

An unemployed mom of nine sues a hospital. She's not the perfect plaintiff. Then again, maybe she is

Published January 5, 2010 3:06PM (EST)

As difficult as it may be to find common ground in various reproductive rights debates, at least one thing ought to be non-controversial: You don't sterilize people against their will. But that hasn't always been a given -- in the 20th century, over 65,000 people in the U.S. were forcibly sterilized, many under state-run eugenics programs that targeted people with disabilities. And that dark history isn't far enough in the past; the last legal compulsory sterilization took place in 1981. Now, a Massachusetts mother is suing a hospital, three doctors and two nurses for allegedly doing it illegally. Thirty-five-year-old Tessa Savicki claims she asked the doctors to insert an IUD after they delivered her son in 2006, and instead they performed a tubal ligation without her consent.

Apart from facts the court will sort out, that should be all the information anyone needs to have an opinion on the matter. If Savicki did sign a consent form (the hospital says there was one but mysteriously can't locate it), then no one did anything wrong wrong, case closed. But if she didn't, then the doctors and nurses participated in a gross violation of Savicki's rights. End of story. If only it were.

The Boston Herald reports:

Savicki has nine children from several men, is unemployed and relies on public assistance for two of the four children who live with her. She receives supplemental security income, or SSI, for a disability, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, she said. Her mother has custody of three of her children. Two of her children are no longer minors.

Additionally, Savicki previously sued CVS and the manufacturers of a spermicide that failed because, she claims, she was sold an expired product. So basically, she's the least sympathetic plaintiff you could have in a case like this. Poor, disabled, already mother to more children than she can care for and apparently litigious, to boot. Even many of those who recoil at the word "eugenics" will no doubt hear this story and think secretly, the doctors made the right call. That woman shouldn't be having more children.

In some ways, actually, that makes her the perfect plaintiff for a case like this. It would be easy to rally around a woman who was forcibly sterilized before she got a chance to have children, or even after only one or two; a woman who hasn't had kids with multiple partners and has never lost or surrendered custody of a child; a woman with an able body, a good job and financial stability; a woman who's never thought of suing anyone before. A "good" woman, the kind we like, the kind whose decisions we approve of.

It's much harder to set aside classism, ableism, disdain for women who have sex with more men than we might think appropriate and scorn for "bad mommies" to declare unequivocally that what they did to Tessa Savicki -- assuming it's proven -- was wrong. But we must. If anything's a black-and-white issue, this is it: You don't sterilize people against their will. You don't use your personal judgment of someone else's choices as license to invade her body and rob her of her fertility. No matter what you think of the idea of Tessa Savicki -- or Michelle Duggar or Nadya Suleman or that neighbor whose kids seem so out of control -- having another baby, you don't give medical professionals a pass on making that decision for her. Period. Savicki gets it exactly right: "I would never have the right to tell anyone else 'because you have this many kids that's enough.' That's no one's right to say that. It's my choice." Let's hope the courts uphold that basic truth. 

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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