Ask Me About My Tubal Ligation

Paper presented by Sarah Lawrance at the Anderson Gender Resource Center of Idaho State University’s seventh annual conference, The Art of Gender in Everyday Life, in February 2010.

Introduction

Before I read you some selections from my zine, I will quickly explain the contemporary context of the zine phenomenon. According to McDonald and Wooten (n.d.),

Zines are not easily defined. They can be a messy hodgepodge of personal thoughts or an expertly designed political treatise. They can fit easily into a pocket or take up an entire 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper. They can be heavily collaged or minimalist; colored or black-and-white; handwritten or typed; stapled, sewn, or loose. The unifying thread is their outside-of-the-mainstream existence as independently written, produced, and distributed media that value freedom of expression and freedom from rules above all else.

Because of their accessible and unmediated production process, zines represent a multitude of voices largely underrepresented or unrepresented in academic authorship and the literary arts, including the voices of populations marginalized due to factors such as income, education, ethnicity, parental status, gender, and age (Freedman, 2009).

However, zines are increasingly gaining recognition in a variety of academic disciplines for their epistemological value and as important artifacts of cultural production. This is evidenced by the growing body of academic literature with zines as its subject, from student research on zine culture and politics[1] through formal publications such as the recent Signs Comparative Perspectives Symposium on feminist zines (Beins, 2009). Further evidence of zines’ permeation into academia is the creation and development of catalogued zine collections at university libraries, such as the Barnard Zine Collection at Barnard College and the Bingham Center Zine Collection at Duke University.[2] The latter’s website even includes a note on how to properly cite its zines in academic writing.

The fact that I am here now is certainly an example of this trend. Today I am illustrating how zines function as tools for popular education and activism by reading selections from my own recently completed zine, “Ask me about my tubal ligation,” which illustrates some of my everyday experiences of gendered power relations around reproductive and parenting choices.

Growing up a girl

I believe this zine is an important activist and pedagogical tool because it highlights some of the assumptions about girls and women that are still deeply embedded in Western society, insofar as they affect parenting choices. The primary reason I wrote it, in fact, was in response to the condescending and angry reactions I have encountered due to my decision to not be a mother. This first section consists of readings from this zine recounting my experiences growing up in a gendered world I did not agree with and my decision to not produce offspring. While the experiences I recount are particular to my life and upbringing, I think they deal with some broader themes that many girls growing up in the West can relate to.

I’ve known for a long time that I don’t want kids, but I didn’t always know that it was a real option. Having kids is just “what girls do.” We’re supposed to have babies, and when we’re not having babies we’re dreaming about having babies. (p.4)

Growing up, it was never a question of if I would have any, but when and how many. That’s how girls are raised. Everyone keeps telling us that things will change “when you have kids of your own.” Supposedly, when the “maternal instinct” kicks in, I will develop the desire to bear children. The assumption is always that I will eventually have babies. An example that I can clearly remember because I’ve been hearing it for nearly 10 years is, “What will you tell your kids when they want tattoos, coloured hair, or body piercings?” I’ve even been told to avoid getting tattoos on particular parts of my body because I would regret it when I got pregnant. We’re expected to live our lives around the certain eventualities of pregnancy and childrearing. (p.4-5)

My mother had three accidental children, and I often worried that I would inevitably, reluctantly, follow suit. My adolescent reasoning, influenced by my Catholic high school’s approach to sex education, led me to believe that I would inevitably get pregnant if I became sexually active. I was so terrified of this possibility that, rather than look into effective options for contraception, I decided to abstain from intercourse entirely (unlike most of my peers, who went ahead and had sex anyway). I arbitrarily chose “until I get married” as my first hurdle, but eventually decided I didn’t want to ever get married. That was no longer a useful milestone, so I remained abstinent without a clear idea of when I would stop. (p.5)

So by the age of 23 I still had not had sexual intercourse; I was too terrified of the risks. Abstinence worked fine for me: I didn’t have to worry about pregnancy as I simply avoided sex. I was also suffering from a debilitating “good girl” complex. For many years I was obsessed with being a “good girl” so I didn’t drink or smoke or even swear, and I certainly didn’t have sex. I didn’t want to be viewed in a different light by my family, friends, and the rest of the world. Somehow, I thought that having intercourse even just once would change me in a bad way, and would change how others saw me, so I actively avoided it. (p.6)

I projected my fear onto other people as well. I remember being in community college and university and feeling embarrassed for the students who were visibly pregnant. I was unable to see anything beautiful or positive in it; all I saw was evidence of their sexuality physically embedded in their bodies, and I felt embarrassed by it. (p.6)

Most of the time, the idea of having kids has terrified me. I don’t want to worry about maybe someday becoming a single parent. I don’t want to have to decide between risking the kids’ health with illness or risking their health with unsafe, inadequately-tested vaccines; whether to put them in underfunded daycare programs just so I can live a semi-independent life; whether to send them to mind-numbing, creativity-stifling public or private schools or create a time-, energy-, and freedom-consuming series of home-schooling programs; whether to feed them only organic, vegan food (which is quite expensive) or affordable but nutritionally-questionable crap; whether to stay in a failing relationship “for the kids” or struggle as a single-parent; the list goes on. These are really hard decisions to make. In a world where all the options seem bad, how can anyone want to raise kids here, at this historical moment? (p.25-26)

The health care system and “choice”

Another reason this zine is a useful activist and pedagogical tool is because it serves to inform people about a little-known option for permanent contraception, the tubal ligation, more familiarly known as “getting your tubes tied”. At the age of 25, I underwent a tubal ligation to ensure that I would never become pregnant.

This zine demystifies the procedure and what it entails, critiques the institutional constraints that make it a difficult surgery for some people to obtain, and provides the reader with advice on how to convince the relevant medical personnel of their case. This zine also provides activists with more fuel for their work, as it consists of first-hand accounts of encounters with the paternalistic and fundamentally anti-choice health “care” system that governs reproductive health. The readings I cite next are about this.

To provide some context: Right before my 24th birthday I became sexually active—or, rather, what I understood at that time to mean “sexually active”—and sought birth control information from my doctor. More specifically, I sought sterilization. I first had to convince my family doctor to refer me to a gynecologist, and then convince the gynecologist to perform the surgery. Throughout this year-and-a-half-long process I felt that I was not taken seriously, that my concerns were dismissed, and I was treated as though I didn’t know what I was doing. I find this especially disturbing in light of another zine about a young man’s quest for a vasectomy. In his case, however, the doctor thought the request a novel idea and granted him the surgery right away.

To be clear: I recognize the doctor’s obligation to make patients aware of the possible risks of any surgery. But this must be done in a respectful way, in a way that recognizes a patient’s autonomy. It is unacceptable for anyone to deny your reproductive autonomy because they think you might change your mind, especially when this judgment is not based on something you said or did but on traits like your age and sex. I mean, how can an institution act in your “best interest” when it knows next to nothing about you except demographic characteristics? (p.10)

One of the things that really got to me was when the gynecologist said that she could not perform this operation in good conscience, but she would ask around to some of her male doctor friends who might consider it. I don’t know how she “knew” that none of her female doctor friends would do it; she probably assumed that, as women, they would naturally feel the way she did about it. (p.11)

I told her I had already consulted my partner, a man, and that he “was okay with it” and “happy to adopt” if we decided to do so someday. In reality, it was true that he was happy to adopt, but he refused to have any say in what I did with my body, insisting that it was my decision, and that he would support whatever route I chose to take. Though this should have been irrelevant (it is my body, after all), that seemed to do the trick and she agreed to perform the surgery. (p.13)

I find it really interesting that I, a white, middle-class, able-bodied person, was having a lot of difficulty securing this surgery, while historically women in various minority groups have had such surgeries forced upon them without appropriately informed consent, sometimes with no consent at all, and sometimes without even knowing it was happening. Most often targeted were young, poor, unmarried women in an effort to “protect” them from the perils of childbearing while poor. This was done under the guise of being “for their own good” to mask the classist, sexist, and often racist, ablist, colonial, and paternalistic intent. Within the past 100 years in North America, forced sterilization was imposed on indigenous and Métis women, incarcerated women, women with physical impairments, women thought to be mentally ill, and women of other visible minority status as a way to prevent the spread of “undesirable” genetic traits. This was an early form of eugenics practice, and it continued in North America until the 1970s and 1980s. (p.14)

Elsewhere around the world, indigenous and mixed-race women have been forcibly sterilized. Roma women in the Czech Republic have also been targeted in this way, as recently as 2003, and sex workers in many places have been forced to undergo the surgery. In some cases these were officially state-sanctioned activities. Often the surgeries were performed during procedures like dental surgery, abortion, or immediately after childbirth, and many women only discovered much later that they had been sterilized. Medical institutions have coerced women into “consenting” to the surgery by lying about its purpose and permanence, by bribing them, and by withholding abortion care unless they consented to sterilization. (p.14)

Generally, I’ve tried to be very open about my surgery, using it as an opening to educate about reproductive freedom. Sometimes, though, people say the most ridiculous things. (p.22)

You’re too young. So I’m old enough to ovulate, to have sex, and to produce unwanted offspring or terminate a pregnancy. I’m old enough to drink. I’m old enough to drive. I’m old enough to carry a firearm. Essentially they’re saying I’m old enough to create a life, to ruin someone’s life, and to end someone’s life, but I’m not able to permanently “opt out” of reproduction altogether? We can have children at any age, even if we don’t want them, even if we’re ill-equipped to raise and care for them, even if we’re likely to neglect them, but to refuse to have children we have to reach some arbitrary minimum age. (p.22)

You don’t have any kids yet. This argument suggests that it’s only legitimate to refuse children after you’ve fulfilled your womanly duty to bear a few. Even then, I have friends who’ve had unwanted children and are still being refused the surgery because of their young age. (p.23)

You’ll change your mind. This and attitudes like it suggest that women as a group are so flighty, trendy, fickle, changeable, and irrational that we cannot commit to any decision. Of course I might change my mind. Everyone changes their mind sometimes. If I want children badly enough someday, I’ll adopt some or figure out another way to have them in my life. Similarly, no one questions a woman’s decision to get pregnant and bring a new human life into the world, which she now has to take care of for the rest of her life. Of course, that’s what women should want to do, right? Once it’s born, though, she cannot easily change her mind. In spite of this, intentionally sterilized women are questioned, challenged, and alienated, while pregnant women are congratulated. (p.23)

A tubal ligation is permanent and non-reversible. My response? So is having a baby. When a pregnant woman comes in for an ultrasound, or when she’s lying on the delivery table, the doctor doesn’t ask her, “Are you sure you want to do this?” These statements suggest that having a baby is “natural” and isn’t a big deal, but that not having babies is somehow life-changing and something I might later regret because, by virtue of being born female, I must be hardwired to want them. (p.23)

I believe all of this is part of a larger pattern of challenging a woman’s ability to make big decisions about herself, her life, and her body if the results of those decisions aren’t thought biologically pre-determined (in other words, if the decisions aren’t already made for her). (p.25)

A radically different future?

My third reason for believing this zine is a useful activist and pedagogical tool is because I have devoted a section of it to discussing my vision of a world where the upbringing of future generations is radically reconfigured to transcend gender and typical understandings of “the family.” I’m sure these ideas are not new; queer people have been imagining and practicing some of this for decades, and I think we need to be constantly re-imagining and rearticulating what we want and how it could work.

So far I have described many reasons not to have kids. When I get into such conversations, my collocutors sometimes think I must be self-centred, anti-baby, anti-parent, anti-family, or something else along those lines. I’ve thought about this long and hard and realized that the reality is actually quite the opposite! (p.28)

I see my future as more aligned with a solidarity model of caregiving and family. I choose to not have biological kids, thereby freeing up time and energy to adopt or foster someone else’s kids if I want to someday, and/or to generally support my friends and family members who need care or who will have kids of their own. Energy is finite. If every human devotes their time and energy to raising one or more additional humans on a full-time basis, the finite energy that exists gets spread very thinly over a lot of kids. If there are fewer people having fewer kids to raise, that frees up more of this adult energy to be devoted to each child. Imagine if there were dozens of people caring together in different and similar ways for only a handful of kids! Think of all the benefits the kids would get from being exposed to so many different people who have time and energy to give to them. And think of how much easier it would be on the biological parents, since they can then channel their own energy in more diverse ways and also have some time for themselves. I’m not talking about daycare but about a community model of family-raising, or an “intentional care community”. I think this is part of what it means for a village to raise a child. (p.28)

The nuclear family is a fairly recent historical and social phenomenon and, thankfully, appears to be in decline. Good riddance! I don’t know why people are so attached to it, except out of habit, or why even some queer people are determined to reproduce those models but with slightly different characters. Blood and law are pretty arbitrary factors in determining who people will spend their lives with and devote their energy to! I prefer to think of “intentional care communities”, not families, as the primary social unit of a better world. Intentional care communities would be spaces where people come together with a commitment to care for one another, rather than the small isolated households or networks where people are only connected by blood or law. (p. 30)

I mentioned earlier that for parents today, all the options are bad. Whether it involves medical care, food choices, or schooling options, I firmly believe we need more people devoting themselves to making the world better, not to making it more crowded and more resource-deprived. All the money, time, space, and emotional energy that it takes to raise humans from birth to adulthood could be better spent challenging pharmaceutical companies, industrial agriculture, standardized education, patriarchal and paternalistic medical institutions, and other problems. More importantly, it could be spent building alternative institutions (health, food, education, family) to replace those that have failed us so significantly, to start building the better world we want. (p.28-29)

For example, I would much rather devote my energy to a small-scale, inner-city organic farm project that grows food using sustainable practices and makes it available to the local community at affordable prices. Similarly, I would much rather work for a labour union and fight for more holidays, a shorter workday and workweek, better pay and family health benefits, and more and better caregiver-related leaves. Better yet, I’d like to work in a collectively organized workplace whose first priority is to create a supportive environment for workers who are also caregivers. I’d also like to fight for a more inclusive definition of what “family” means so that non-traditional families and care networks receive the support they need. This could create a great workplace model to share with others and hopefully inspire new ones. In other words, I would rather help to make the choices easier for the existing families in my community, rather than start a new family. That’s where I want my energy to go, and I think that if the people who became parents by accident or for the wrong reasons were to do so as well (rather than have accidental children), we would have a world much friendlier to those people who truly want to raise children. This is not about criticizing people’s past decisions; this is about prefiguring and preparing for a different future. (p.29)

Conclusion

A year or two ago I was struck by an interesting piece of theory, but only now am I able to write coherently about it. I’m referring to the concept of “utopian pedagogy” as articulated by Coté, Day, and de Peuter, where utopia is understood “not as a place we might reach but as an ongoing process of becoming” (Coté, Day, & de Peuter, 2007: 13). This idea of utopia means being critical of how things are while also trying to make things better, all the while acknowledging that there is no singular “correct” vision of what this means because we will always be improving upon it. This suggests that the imagined “ends” are in a sense inconsequential because, wherever we end up, we’ll always still be in the process of improving our situation.

Thus, these utopian experiments are necessarily prefigurative: they involve building now the world we want to see—always in the shell of the old—in order to continuously bring our reality closer to what we want it to be. These prefigurative projects, as clumsy and imperfect as they may be, are ways of imagining, enacting, and discovering what is possible.

The vision that I articulate at the end of this zine is both utopian and pedagogical. Utopian pedagogy, for the authors, refers to “those practices which seek to propagate an awareness of the existence and possibilities of the radical outside” (Coté, Day, & de Peuter, 2007: 15). I believe it is this very pregnant “radical outside” that zines, with their critical, experimental, utopian, and largely uncensored voices and ideas, can point toward.


[1] See Kucsma, 2000, or Whitney, 2005, for example.

[2] A more comprehensive list of academic libraries with zine collections is available online at: http://www.barnard.edu/library/zines/zinelibraries.htm#academic.

Works Cited

Beins, Agatha (Ed). 2009. “Comparative Perspectives Symposium: Feminist zines.” Signs 35, no 1: 1-74.

Coté, Mark, Richard J. F. Day, & Greg de Peuter (Eds). 2007. Utopian Pedagogy: Radical experiments against neoliberal globalization. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press.

Freedman, Jenna. 2009. “Grrrl Zines in the Library.” Signs 35, no 1: 52-59.

Kucsma, Jason. 2000. “Resist and Exist: Punk zines and the communication of cultural and political resistance in America.” The People’s Papers Project. Toledo, OH: Become the Media.

Lawrance, Sarah. 2010. “Ask Me About My Tubal Ligation.” Ottawa, ON: EXILE Press.

McDonald, Amy, & Kelly Wooten. N.D. “Bingham Center Zine Collections: What is a zine?” Available online at: http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/zines/. Accessed Jan 10, 2010.

Whitney, Eleanor. 2005. “Making Media, Making Meaning: Zines and critical consciousness in young women.” Senior work project, Eugene Lang College, Cultural Studies Concentration. New York City, NY. Available online at: http://grrrlzines.net/writing/articles.htm. Accessed July 31, 2008.


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~ by artpoped on July 6, 2010.

One Response to “Ask Me About My Tubal Ligation”

  1. I begged for this procedure when I was 24. I already had 2 daughters and their father and I weren’t going to work out because of his major bi-polar that was continually getting worse. At 24, I was denied twice (different doctors) because I was too young, not married, and only had 2 kids (I guess 3 is what they want you to shoot for). Mind you, I didn’t want any more children. Just because I have a uterus doesn’t mean I have to use it. At 25, I met a man who was “supposedly” sterile after a military injury. I felt as though my prayers were answered. Well, he wasn’t sterile. I got pregnant and right from the beginning I begged him to let me terminate. He didn’t want me to because he wanted his child. I should’ve sneaked off and had it done but I never found anyone willing to take me. Anyways, I had a son. Months later, after having to quit bcps because of them making me ill, I got pregnant again (twins). This pregnancy turned out to be very traumatic (twins died) and I wanted a tubal after that. NOPE! This time was because of the fact that I had a traumatic pregnancy. Forget the fact that these people knew I had wanted this since I was 24. At 31, I’ve finally found someone willing to do this. This is 7 years and 3 kids after the time I first wanted it. Now, I’ve made my husband get a Vas but I haven’t touched him in over a year. I honestly suffer from severe depression and I have trouble bonding with my son. I regret having him almost every day of my life. I’m trapped in a marriage, with a man who lied to me, and raising a child that I never wanted to have. It’s messed me up so bad that I don’t even feel that I’m an adequate mother to my daughters. I honestly REGRET not having my tubes tied when I was 24. If I were to ever get pregnant again, I would NOT tell my husband and I would just sneak off and have an abortion.

    You doctors who make us women jump through hoops to get our tubes tied, I hope you rot in hell some day and remember my story the next time a young woman is in front of you begging for this. I would much rather have gotten a tubal and regretted that than having a child and regretting him. It’s the most awful feeling in the world. My whole life was taken from me because I was denied this… and there is nothing I can do to get it back.

    Like

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