Some of the women responsible for organising the Women’s March on Washington, photography: Cass Bird, image from www.vogue.com/article/meet-the-women-of-the-womens-march-on-washington
Part of the power of feminism is offering women choice: choice in the home and workplace; choice in one’s appearance; choice in one’s relationships and social interactions; and choice in one’s reproductive health. Reproductive choice is vital, facilitating greater independence, security, and autonomy. So it makes sense that all women should be able to choose what they do with their bodies. However, our ideas of what it means to be pro-choice are deeply whitewashed and exclusive.
After Donald Trump won the US election last year, many feminist media outlets urged women to get an IUD as a long-term contraceptive that wouldn’t be taken away by political maneuvering. It was during this time that I was introduced to the idea that such recommendations were pretty exclusionary. I saw many women of colour on social media saying these pleas failed to take into account the complex (and traumatic) history of IUD’s for women of colour in the USA.
In the 1970’s, an IUD called the Dalkon Shield caused the deaths of 17 women and injury to 200,000. The device was marketed towards young women, poor women, and women of colour with a paternalistic message of “population control”. The dangerous design caused cases of Pelvic Inflammatory Disease and sepsis, leading to infertility. Although IUDs are now far safer than in the 70’s, the Dalkon Shield is one of many examples of where marginalised women are discouraged and judged for having children – with disastrous consequences.
The rise of eugenics in the former half of the 20th century saw women sterilised as a means of “bettering” the population. Alexandra Stern writes in her 2005 paper “Sterilized in the Name of Public Health” that “in California, at least into the 1950’s, compulsory sterilization was consistently described as a public health strategy that could breed out undesirable defects from the populace and fortify the state as a whole.” These undesirable defects were inextricable from the attitudes of their context: a deeply white, male paradigm that was happy to sacrifice women’s rights for racist, ableist beliefs about what the human ideal was.
Black queer transgender activist, Raquel Willis. Gif from www.giphy.com/gifs/feminism
Indigeneity is a particular obsession for those wishing to deny women their freedom to choose: Dr. Connie Pinkerton-Uri, Choctaw/Cherokee, found that a quarter of Native American women had been sterilized without consent. Pinkerton-Uri’s research indicated the Indian Health Service “singled out full-blooded Indian women for sterilization procedures.” Such findings are in line with the U.S. General Accounting Office findings that Indian Health Service regions sterilized 3,406 Native American women without permission between 1973 and 1976.
So it’s pretty clear that women of colour and women with disabilities have systematically been denied the right to choose in America. But is this true in Australia, too?
Simply put – yes.
In A.B.Original’s 2016 album ‘Reclaim Australia’, the song Call ‘Em Out featured a chilling sample of mining magnate Lang Hancock’s “solution” to the “Aboriginal problem”: “dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in future and that would solve the problem.” Hancock’s penchant for forced sterilisation is not medieval, but an idea from the 1980’s. And people eager to monitor Indigenous women’s bodies are not just a grotesque piece of history — they’re still scarily common. In 2014, ex-politician Gary Johns caused outrage by suggesting welfare should be hinged upon the use of long-term contraceptives. He wrote at the time: “it undoubtedly will affect Aboriginal and Islander people in great proportions, but the idea that someone can have the taxpayer… fund the choice to have a child is repugnant.” The problem (apart from their staggering lack of empathy) with such suggestions, is that rather than actually address the institutionalised harms of poverty, racism, and isolation, Hancock or Johns would rather simply stop the people who experience these harms from existing. It frames the problems they experience as an inherent issue of their identity, rather than an unfortunate, and changeable, part of their circumstances.
And when marginalised women do have children, they face the challenge of being allowed to raise them. The practice of forced adoption targeted young, vulnerable women, deeming them incapable of raising their child, and creating inter-generational trauma. This is particularly true for Indigenous women — the Stolen Generation fundamentally robbed Indigenous mothers of the ability to raise their children, and robbed children of the opportunity to inherit their culture. The same argument is made of continuing confiscations of Indigenous children from struggling parents: families argue that more effort should be placed in allowing these children to be raised in their family, with systemic harms being fixed, not ignored.
In late 2015, the UN raised concerns that women with disabilities in Australia were being sterilised without their consent. Carolyn Frohmader of Women with Disabilities Australia told The Guardian in 2015 that forced sterilisation of women with disabilities is “an egregious human rights violation and it is recognised as a form of torture”, but denying these women and girls agency is still officially legal and sanctioned by the state. The common justifications for such measure argue that girls with disabilities may react badly to menstruation or encounter extreme difficulties in potential pregnancies. Yet ultimately, such arguments ignore the burden of the state and carer in protecting these girls. Making decisions about girls’ reproductive health in the interest of perceived social convenience rather than the girl’s health is dangerous — it’s infantilisation, not protection.
The frankly irresponsible argument that involuntary hysterectomies somehow “prevent abuse” is still more repulsive; the “prevention” is really about hiding the abuse and its physical consequences. The late disability activist Stella Young wrote that “many women I’ve spoken to who have undergone such procedures feel a deep sense of shame and violation” — a statement that hardly supports the idea that medical “solutions” are in any way a fulfillment of a duty of care.
The right to choose is incredibly important in preserving autonomy, yet arguments for this right focus on women’s right not to have kids. A worthy cause, but it‘s also vital that women (particularly those who are vulnerable or marginalised) have their right to have kids respected as well. We need to acknowledge the very real harms of violated women’s autonomy, and we need to shift societal attitudes away from wanting to fix social harms by taking away women’s agency.
Ellie is a 17-year-old student who enjoys the beach, dumplings, and debating.