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In 2020, Women Still Need Their Husband's Permission to Get Sterilized

One woman's viral Twitter story has others opening up about their experiences

In 2020, Women Still Need Their Husband's Permission to Get Sterilized

Some doctors still think a woman needs her husband’s permission for surgery on her own body. A Washington mother of two shared her story of discrimination at her OBGYN, and her story went viral — not because it was rare, but because many women could relate.

“My OBGYN just said if I want my tubes tied electively then my husbands signature is also required on the release form.”, the 34-year-old, who uses a pseudonym, wrote on Twitter, “I asked her if that was a law, she said it’s not but it’s their policy.”

Her tweet sparked outrage and, soon, OBGYN horror stories were trending on Twitter. Across the country, grown women are being denied control over their own reproductive systems.

“Mine straight told me it was illegal because of my age,” wrote one woman, “I was 31, my husband was in treatment for thyroid cancer, and we were done having kids.”

“When I was 24, I wanted my tubes tied,” shared another woman, “but Texas said I needed my husband’s consent. That was in 1985. He didn’t give his consent. I wasn’t a minor, but in the eyes of certain entities/states, women don’t get to make choices; men get to make them for women.”

In some cases, even women married to other women needed a man’s consent. “My OBGYN denied me a hysterectomy for my endometriosis on the basis I may want children, with a man, in the future. My wife was in the seat next to me. This is not unusual. This is what it’s like for women.”

Even hypothetical future husbands got more of a say than women themselves. “[I] told former OBGYN (2004) I wanted mine tied asap after delivery of my last child,” said another mother, “she refused cause I might get married again and my new husband may want children.”

The experiences of these women, and many others who quietly supported them, are not uncommon, despite the fact that these policies are overwhelmingly considered unethical. State laws that require spousal consent for tubal ligation (also known as "getting your tubes tied”) have been consistently overturned as unconstitutional.

In 1975, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of Judith Ponter, who was seeking to receive a sterilization procedure without the consent of her husband.

The court ruled “that Judith Ponter has a constitutional right to obtain a sterilization operation without the consent of her husband. Such protection is available whether it be in the form of the proscription of state action requiring the contrary or refusing to recognize the spouse’s civil suit against the treating physician as meritorious.”

“Women have emerged in our law,” Judge Gruccio wrote in the decision, “from the status of their husband’s chattels to the position of 'frail vessels' and now finally to the recognition that women are individual persons with certain and absolute constitutional rights. Included within those rights is the right to procure an abortion or other operation without her husband’s consent. A natural and logical corollary of those rights is a right to be sterilized without her husband’s consent.”

“When women don’t want sterilization, it’s there. When they do, it’s hard to find.”

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists agrees, stating, “Respect for an individual woman’s reproductive autonomy should be the primary concern guiding sterilization.” The policy also states that young single women who wish to not have children should also be able to obtain sterilization.

Yet, for young, unmarried, women without children, finding a doctor to perform sterilization may be especially difficult.

The r/childfree subreddit, a community of over 800,000 people who do not ever want to have children, have compiled a list of doctors in every state that will perform sterilizations. It’s an amazing resource, but it also demonstrates how severe the problem is. In some states, like Hawaii, South Dakota, and Wyoming, there are only two doctors listed. The same is true for Washington, D.C., a city with a population size greater than all of Wyoming.

The right to choose permanent sterilization is an important, and often overlooked, aspect of reproductive autonomy. Arguments against tubal ligations for women often revolve around the stereotype that all women will eventually want children, and that a woman can not possibly make the informed choice to forgo the option to have biological children.

The US fertility rate has been steadily declining since the post-WWII baby boom. This makes sense. There is evidence that fertility rates decline as women gain access to more education. Low birthrates are also related to a lack of support for working mothers — an area in which the US lags behind other developed nations.

An increasing number of families are also choosing not to have children due to climate concerns — both because of the environmental footprint of a growing population, and also because of the bleak future awaiting future generations.

Despite the many reasons a woman of any age or with any number of children may want to be sterilized, many doctors are still unwilling to perform the procedure based solely on the woman’s interest.

On the other hand, there is an insidious history of sterilization being used against indigenous women, women of color, women with mental illness or disability, prisoners, and unwed mothers without their consent. Non-consensual sterilization was an important part of the US Eugenics movement.

It’s clear that sterilization is just another weapon in the war against women. When women don’t want sterilization, it’s there. When they do, it’s hard to find.

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