Bioedge and others reported last week that four doctors in an Indian public hospital performed 106 sterilization operations in a single day, leaving patients unattended in a nearby field to recover due to a lack of available beds for female patients. State hospital regulations allow for only 25 sterilizations a day due to limited resources.
India has one of those “family-planning” regimes that makes human rights advocates cringe. Last year, the Guardian reported that UK aid money (in the realm of tens of millions of pounds) had been spent forcibly sterilizing women as part of a “population control” initiative. Doctors are given financial incentives for every sterilization procedure they perform. The poorest of the poor are the most vulnerable. Although many sterilization procedures are done without consent, poor women are lured with financial incentives to undergo sterilization.
In this country too we offer financial incentives for women to get sterilized. The controversial organization Project Prevention offers a whopping $300 to drug-addicted women who voluntarily get sterilized. “Don’t let pregnancy get in the way of your crack habit” one of the organization’s fliers reads.
Barbara Harris, who founded Project Prevention, has some really good motives. Recognizing her organization can’t do everything, she has made a cost-benefit analysis: $300 to prevent pregnancy vs. $500,000 to wean one drug-addicted baby. It is pennies to the dollars. (And to be fair to Harris, she really does care about the state of these babies coming into the world marked by addiction. She has adopted several drug-addicted children herself.)
But here is the problem with Harris’ reasoning: it makes the locus of the war on drugs women’s bodies. It is the same problem with population-control measures in India. Despite the noble goals of promoting the common good, we do it by using women’s bodies as a means to that end.
Angela Franks writes in her essay “The Gift of Female Fertility” in the newly-released Women, Sex, and the Church (which I will be writing a more comprehensive review of soon),
The ‘war’ that is fought against female fertility is not restricted to what happens in health clinics in the developing world. It is carried to the very psyches of women and girls everywhere. If we are telling women that their own bodies are the cause of their problems (and those of the world as well), how can we expect them to be at peace with themselves?
She goes on:
The cavalier way in which women are expected to expose themselves to health risks for the sake of sterility indicates a wider problem. Women and girls internalize the war against their bodies by accepting the dominant, masculine utilitarian calculus in determining their value.
For a while now, I have been very critical of this administration’s Contraception Mandate (regardless of the provisions made for conscience protection) because it makes women’s bodies the problem and provides a nice utilitarian excuse for not pursuing more comprehensive and just social policies, particularly for women and children. By pathologizing the reproductive capabilities of women, we provide a subtle message to women that their bodies (and since we are embodied creatures, their very selves) are the problem society needs to solve. This is not liberation for women. It is a more subtle and more nefarious war against women. Provisions for sterilization are especially insidious in that they literally ask women to permanently and surgically alter their bodies (I like that the Church still refers to sterilization as “mutilation”).
It’s time for a new feminist re-appraisal of the Church’s teaching on sexuality. By opposing contraceptive measures, we are forced to view women holistically, soul and body. We are forced to see their bodies not as problems, but as integral parts of their persons. We are forced to find solutions to social problems that may not be the most cost-effective, but don’t ask women to be at war with themselves. Rather than a stumbling block, the Church’s teachings on sexuality should be seen as prophetic denouncements against the real war against. women.