The Other Side of Reproductive Rights

Many discussions about reproductive rights centre around the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, the right to access family planning to decide the timing and spacing of children, if people want to have them at all, and the free and unfettered access to abortion. I support all of these rights and believe they are important to fight for, not least because it’s clear that many people want to restrict access to all of these things, using highly paternalistic arguments to attempt to exert control over bodies with uteruses in them. These causes have been important to feminism for a very long time, and with good reason, although many feminists glide right over the deeply ableist, classist, and racist origins of the reproductive rights movement, which was originally focused primarily on preventing ‘undesirables’ from having children.

Which brings me to the flip side of the reproductive rights discussion, an issue I do not see people covering as widely: The right to have children.

Some people seem skeptical when confronted with the idea that we need to protect the rights of people who want to have children. The assumption is that, in society, having children is the default, so people who want to have children are not in need of protection and defense; so they want to have kids, what’s the problem? Go ahead and ‘let’ them, no one’s stopping them. And we have more important issues, like defending the right to access safe abortions in clean facilities where women receive respectful and comprehensive care.

Except that, actually, some people who want to have children do encounter barriers. And I’m not talking about infertility. I’m talking about specific and systemic attempts to prevent them from having, or raising, children. Many of these attempts are reminiscent of the early origins of the reproductive rights movement, which people have reframed as ‘the right to choose,’ while ignoring the fact that having children is a choice just as much as not having them is, which means we need to defend that right and option every bit as vigorously as the right to choose ‘no’ to children. And I say this as a person who does not want to have children; I work in solidarity with people who want to become parents, and are parents, because it is important.

Forcible sterilisation still happens. I feel like I say this all the time but it doesn’t seem to sink in. Forcible sterilisation still happens, and it happens here in the United States and in other ‘developed’ countries. People are stripped of reproductive agency against their will; through removal of reproductive organs, the use of hormonal birth control without consent. This is done, we are told, in the interests of ‘protecting their safety.’ The people this happens to tend, for the most part, to be disabled. But not always. Sometimes sterilisation procedures are performed on poor people without their consent, as happened to Tessa Savicki in 2008 when a doctor performed a tubal ligation because he, apparently, thought she had enough children. Savicki was on welfare. I am reminded of the large numbers of ‘feminists’ who sneered at Nadya Suleman for having too many children, by their definition, and being poor.

Sometimes, poor people are coerced into sterilisation even if it’s not something they actually want. Many states have programs to assist people with the costs of family planning and reproductive medicine, and poor people can receive free sterilisation procedures through those programs. Some regions actually offer cash bonuses to sufficiently undesirable people who are willing to be deprived of their ability to reproduce. When you are poor, when you are struggling, a $200 cash payment in that moment means far more to you than your future chances at having children. Some of these programs explicitly prey on people of colour.

And, several governments force trans people to be sterilised if they want to have their genders legally recognised, a highly controversial and deeply offensive practice. Sure, it’s not done ‘without their consent’ but it is done in a clearly coercive setting. Want your gender to be legally accepted? Submit to sterilisation.

Children are still taken from their parents in the name of ‘welfare.’ I would argue that there are cases where there is clearly a compelling and demonstrable need to take children out of an unsafe situation, like children living in an abusive household. But these cases become much more complex when disability is involved. Disabled parents, especially women, run a very high risk of having their children taken away because the government thinks people with disabilities cannot care for their children. That risk becomes even higher if a parent is single, queer, a person of colour, or a nonwhite person. Disabled parents live in fear that someone will decide they are unsuitable; that a mental illness or physical disability makes someone an ‘unfit parent’ despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Children are taken away from queer and trans parents, on ‘moral’ grounds.

As we work in solidarity with people who do not want to have children, either permanently or at a given point in time, we also need to work in solidarity with people who do want to have children. Who want to be able to access prenatal care without being told constantly that they should get an abortion. Who want to be able to watch their children grow up and live with them in their households, who want to be able to raise their own children. We need to work in solidarity to ensure that sterilisation is never the result of coercion, manipulation, or outright force. To make sure that the guidelines for removing children from their homes focus on situations where it is actually necessary and there is a compelling need.

Having children, or not, is a personal choice, and it is an exercise of autonomy. It is a decision to exert control over your own body and life, to decide how you want to live and what you want to do with your uterus, or your semen. Restriction of reproductive rights goes in more directions than just one. And some people do talk, occasionally, about topics like forcible sterilisation and removal of children from safe, loving households. But not very often.

And people tend to approach these issues as individual problems, rather than looking at the systemic attitudes that lead up to them. Sterilising a poor person without consent isn’t an individual problem. It’s the result of a widely held social belief that poor people should not have children. Taking children away from a wheelchair user isn’t an individual problem or shortcoming of the system, it is the result of ableism. Deciding that children can’t live in a house with queer people is not a individual problem.