Catapulting to Conclusions

Because you can get there so much faster if you use a big machine to throw you right over annoying factual hurdles in your way.

I’ve been meaning to dissect this issue for over a week, but a lot of things have been happening over here. A recent news story has prompted a lot of discussion, some of it rather ugly. The short of it (and the news article in the Chicago Tribune is not terribly long) is that a 29-year old woman identified only as “K.E.J.” has been granted an appellate opinion in her favor. The woman experienced a traumatic brain injury as a child, and according to the wording of the article, “cannot be left alone to operate a stove or perform most household chores”, although by having that bit of information alone, our perceptions of her are biased because it does not mention what she is capable of doing. Her legal guardian, an aunt, had filed a petition with the court to have her (fallopian) tubes tied. All three judges on the panel were unanimous in their decision against this action.

“Tubal ligation is a particularly drastic means of preventing a mentally incompetent ward from becoming pregnant,” Judge Joseph Gordon wrote in the 36-page opinion. There are “less intrusive and less psychologically harmful [birth-control] alternatives.”

The readers’ comments were much longer than the article, and many were downright rude. This situation is so fraught with over-generalisations and false dichotomies and conflations that it fair makes me dizzy. The biggest and most common fallacy of the lot was the combined false dichotomy + slippery slope assertion that it’s Either she gets a tubal ligation Or she’ll be popping out babies that she can’t take care of and we’ll be spending our tax dollars to support. [Bang head here.] More thoughtful discussions of this issue are to be found over at Feministing, although excursions into the Realm of Stoopid by some of the commenters are to be found there, too.

Nowhere does the article state that she has a boyfriend. Nowhere does it state that she is even having sexual relations with anyone at all. Apparenlty she likes children, and the article quotes her,

At a bench trial in 2005, K.E.J. testified that she hoped one day to have children. “I will love taking care of them,” she said. “I will love, you know, to see how they grow.”

But that is not to say that she is actually planning on having children of her own. That would involve having an intimate relationship with a man, and getting pregnant. Lots of people like children but never actually have any of their own.

That disabled people are more susceptible to abuse is a problem, but a shocking number of people seem to leap right past the fact that sterilising people does not prevent abuse or rape. It just means that pregnancy cannot occur, so the abuse can more easily be perpetuated, because the results are more invisible. Sexual abuse can also involve other secondary problems beyond trauma and pregnancy, such as communicable diseases.

There’s a very bad history of forced sterilization upon disabled and/or poor people, and yes, I’m talking about events in the U.S., and yes, even in recent decades. A person could be subjected to forcible surgery for such eugenic reasons as being blind, deaf, epileptic, poor, of a native (aboriginal) race, of mixed races, alcoholic, having a physical deformity, cognitive disability or perceived mental illness.

The whole point to such legal actions is that adults have the right to decide whether or not someone else will perform invasive, permanently altering surgery (pun intended). The issue is less about whether or not she ever wants to have children, and more about whether or not she is allowed to decide if she can even make that decision in the future, or whether she will be forced to undergo surgery for someone else’s convenience.

Saying that you don’t want to be forcibly sterilized is not the same thing as saying you want to have lots of children.

Saying that you don’t want to be forcibly sterilized is not the same thing as saying you are planning on having children.

Honestly. The woman has difficulties with some kinds of tasks in life, but she’s still an adult. She still knows what she does and does not want in life. That the woman’s aunt wants to do this really says more about the fact that there are insufficient social supports for care-giver respite, and for support services for people with disabilities (PWD) to live independently or semi-independently. The problem is not that PWD exist, but that societies have not yet figured out how to better support members so they can in turn be happier, more socially integrated and more functional at home and in the workplace.

I’ve previously discussed how PWD are lumped into false dichotomies of devils or angels; the angelic disabled person is not-quite-human, a tragic but romanticized virgin on a pedestal of virtue. But we are all human, and adults are still adults. Having cognitive disabilities does not make one a mental child, it makes one an adult with adult feelings and interests and with fewer aptitudes for abstract learning.

There’s a difference between saying that people should be forcibly sterilized and that a particular individual would not want or be able to care for children. There really is — it’s about people having choices in their lives. Certainly not everyone who can bear children does. Certainly there’s no shortage of humans in the world, but I would think that the real concern instead would be about the people who have large families for lack of contraceptive availability. (Out of the millions of people on the planet, cases like this about the forced sterilisation of disabled people are not going to force the tipping point for zero population growth.)

It’s also pretty damn important to remember that sexual reproduction requires both male and female gametes — sperm and eggs. If the woman is not able to tolerate various forms of birth control (due to other medical conditions), then the man she may be with can certainly undertake the responsibility for the birth control. Duh!

It’s dangerous to assume that because a person has some kind of disability that they cannot be a good parent. (It’s also equally dangerous to assume that just because someone does not have a disability that they automatically can be a good parent.) There are a surprising number of people out there with erratic skills levels. No court would blink twice at giving someone like my hubby child custody, even though he can hardly cook, doesn’t know how to repair plumbing, couldn’t sew together a garment, and can hear very little with his hearing aids off. But he’s a white male who makes a good income, so therefore he’s one of the favored class. On the other hand, a woman of color who could cook, fix plumbing, sew garments and was blind and/or unable to walk would not nearly as likely be viewed as a suitable parent. And what’s the difference? It’s about perceptions about “suitability”, which in reality have nothing to do with the actual parenting skills of either person! (This is no slur against my husband; he’s a good dad.)

Speaking of gender biases, were she male, would the guardian be as adamant about forcing a vasectomy?

Granted, it’s best to not have children when your current circumstances would make rearing them very difficult. But anyone who claims that “people who can’t take care of children shouldn’t have them” is operating on false generalisations, because anyone and everyone can become impoverished or severely disabled. And if that happened to you tomorrow, would you suddenly become an unfit parent? Would it justify breaking up your family and depriving children of the parents who love them? Of course not.

Many people are concerned about placing the potential well-being of an imaginary child against the current well-being of an existing, real adult person. Since when are hypothetical people more important than real ones? Furthermore, even if she did have a child someday, she wouldn’t be doing it all by herself; there would be father involved. It also drives me nuts when people assume that to be able to do something, one must somehow be able to do everything all by themselves. Since when does anyone rear a child all by their self for 18-22 years? No one does. So it’s really a false dichotomy to say that a person must be able to do everything all by themself to rear a child, or they shouldn’t have children.

Once again, this also runs along class lines — there are some really rich people out there who have little hands-on work in doing their own housekeeping or child-rearing, but it’s somehow all okay because they can afford to pay someone else, rather than because they cannot do all of the tasks on their own.

Another one of those giant leaps that commenters are making is applying one person’s case to all disabled people. There are blanket assumptions that people with disabilities cannot be good parents, or that not being able to be an effective parent justifies outright sterilisation. The judges are correct in looking at cases individually, and deciding that drastic measures should not be automatically granted nor are necessary.

Would K.E.J. be a good candidate for parenthood? It’s hard to say for sure, because we don’t really know what her full range of skills are. Chances are likely not. But that doesn’t mean that she is even planning to do so. And as the judges point out, that does not justify forcing her to undergo a tubal ligation.


  1. Lunch Admin. said,

    16 May 2008 at 21:27

    Very interesting and thoughtful post. I am reminded of the case of Ashley, the Seattle child whose parents were given the ok to surgically remand her body to state of childhood.

  2. 3 May 2008 at 19:44

    […] Minister Gordon Brown’s grilling by senior MPs on the Commons liaison committee. (102 clicks) Catapulting to ConclusionsCatapulting to Conclusions 3 May 2008 at 18:23 (Gender / Sexuality, Parent… Arkansas Slammed by Deadly StormsEmergency response teams faced a busy weekend helping Arkansas […]

%d bloggers like this: