In 1995, when I was in my early 20s, I decided to have a tubal ligation. It was an informed decision, one that I had thought about at great length and reached logically. So I set things in motion to move ahead with the procedure. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Things started out well. My general practitioner was great. When I told her I wanted the surgery, we had a conversation about my options. She asked reasonable questions that were clearly intended to make sure I’d thought the decision through, which I would expect when requesting any kind of elective surgery. And then she referred my to a gynecologist.
It’s clear that I expected the possibility of pushback, because I asked my then-husband to come to the appointment with me. I understood that, no matter how clear and decisive and informed I was, I had a better chance of convincing the doctor to perform the procedure if my husband was shown to approve. It was insulting, but it was also something I was willing to leverage.
I began to feel some trepidation while still in the waiting room. A fellow patient speaking to the receptionist said, “I wanted it done after the third kid, but he wouldn’t until I was 35.” In the gynecologist’s office, my fears were realized when he asked what he could do for us. I told him I wanted to have my tubes tied. His face froze and he began to shake his head, and he said, “No. That’s not moral.”
That’s. Not. Moral.
He then went on to say that it was all right for my husband (who was even younger than I) to have a vasectomy.
I’ve never understood the gynecologist’s logic here. Was it not moral for me to not have children? Then why was it okay for my husband to have a vasectomy and hence become unable to impregnate me? Was it against his personal morals to perform the surgery for some reason? Ignoring the fact that it was his job, why not just refer me to someone else? Was it not moral to perform a surgical intervention for the purposes of contraception in general? Then what about the woman in the waiting room who had met his arbitrary conditions?
I’ve since learned the term “medical paternalism,” and realize that’s what was at work here. I came across the term recently, when I saw this.
This video of Christen Reighter’s excellent talk about trying to get her tubes tied was posted twenty-three years after I first approached my GP about the same procedure. Twenty-three years. And yet, the differences between her story and mine are so slight as to be barely noteworthy. The arguments made against her decision, the condescension, the belief others know what’s right for you better than you do yourself – they’re a common thread through the stories of countless women who had tried to take control of their own reproductive system through surgery.
In the long run, I was lucky, although it pisses me off something fierce to use that term. It took me a while to get up the nerve, but I told my GP what had happened with the gynecologist. She was appalled, and she went out of her way to seek out a specialist who would even consider tying the tubes of a woman my age. It took some time, but she did, and set up an appointment.
Again my husband came with me, and again I marshalled my arguments. But this time was different. The gynecologist entered the office, sat at his desk, and flipped open the file folder he carried. I noticed a full-page typed letter in the folder, which I have since learned was a communication from my GP, who had very much gone to bat for me during this process. He said, “So you want to have your tubes tied.” I took a deep breath, ready for battle, and answered, “Yes.”
“No problem,” he replied.
And a month later, at the age of 24, the procedure was done.
I have never regretted my decision.
On International Women’s Day, I look back on my experience. I’ve always sort of considered myself to be a bit of a pioneer in this regard. Certainly I was not the first young woman to have my tubes tied to prevent having any children, but I’ve always thought I was probably nearish to the leading edge of the wave. I didn’t set out to make things easier for other women, but I always hoped that in some small way I contributed. So it’s disheartening every time I hear another story of another woman having to fight the same fight I did a quarter century ago.
My story is only one tiny drop in a very large bucket.