In the justified and correct outpouring of rage sparked by the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, there’s been a certain troubling post doing the rounds on social media.
“Stop abortion at the source. Vasectomies are reversible. Make every young man have one. When he’s deemed financially & emotionally fit to be a father it will be reversed,” the post reads.
While there are a few variations on this idea floating about on your friend’s Insta stories and beyond, the premise is the same; if you feel uncomfortable about the idea of forcing men to undergo medical procedures, then you should feel the same about denying women a similar choice over bodily autonomy.
Sure. Fine. Haha. However, the argument totally misses the point; we want greater bodily autonomy for everyone, not reduced bodily autonomy to level the playing field.
There’s a myriad of issues with this idea — centrally, that it totally wouldn’t work and is deeply problematic — that seem to stem from a lack of understanding of the history of the practice of mandatory or coercive sterilisation.
It’s clear — at least in most cases — that a lot of these posts are made in jest, and that no one really thinks all men should be temporarily sterilised but even as a thought experiment or a joke, it’s definitely not something you should be calling for.
PHD researcher Georgia Grainger, from the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare in Glasgow, is a “historian of vasectomies” and describes the situation this way:
If you think a "mandatory vasectomy til men prove they can be a father" is even a fun thought experiment, I recommend you go and read up on eugenics. Plus, that inevitably becomes "mandatory IUDs for women" too, which again, has happened in recent US history.
— Georgia Grainger (@sniphist) June 25, 2022
Essentially, forced vasectomies and other forms of sterilisation have been used throughout history — and to this day — by governments wanting to control the reproductive rights and abilities of certain populations, overwhelmingly marginalised groups. In the US, Indigenous Americans, Black, Latino, and disabled people have all been subject to trials of forced sterilisation.
As Australians, we need to be particularly careful with this idea. Not only does our country have a history of sterilising Indigenous women, bound up in the genocidal eugenics practices of the ‘White Australia’ policy, but it’s also still legal to coercively sterilise disabled and intersex people.
The practice has been called out by various United Nations human rights bodies since 2005, and since then, Australia has enacted some protections for disabled people. However, in 2013, the Senate ruled that involuntary sterilisation would not be banned and that families and carers can apply for court orders to sterilise their children. This is typically done to young girls with neurological issues that make caring for themselves difficult during menstruation, something that the UN Human Rights Commission rejects as a justification. Just last year, the practice of sterilising people with disabilities was defended at a Royal Commission hearing.
You might think this is yet another example of patriarchal dominance over female anatomy, but as Grainger points out, men will also support the sterilisation of other men.
Since people don't quite get this. Even if it is to show that "men wouldn't tolerate it if men were denied autonomy", it doesn't work, because thousands of men literally were forcibly sterilised and it was male doctors and politicians supporting it.https://t.co/1eC17KtBhl
— Georgia Grainger (@sniphist) June 26, 2022
What she’s referring to here is eugenics campaigns carried out by various American states throughout the 1900s, which saw thousands of Black and Latino men sterilised against their will, usually as a means of controlling ‘criminal’ or aggressive behaviour. Largely, white, male doctors and lawmakers were the ones calling the shots on these policies.
Similar campaigns have been carried out across the world. The Nazis famously incorporated sterilisation into their genocidal campaign against Jewish people, disabled people, Roma people, and others. In India, the country’s female Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma) led a campaign to sterilise millions of working-class men. Right now, sterilisation practices are being carried out on the Uyghur Muslims of China.
Others online have similarly pointed out the flawed and dangerous logic in this argument:
i am BEGGING other white people to stop talking about mandatory vasectomies as if Black and Indigenous peoples haven’t been subjected to centuries of involuntary sterilization. there are other ways to discuss contraception and pregnancy prevention that don’t invoke eugenics.
— ren 🏳️🌈♿️🏳️⚧️ (@cripcryptid) June 27, 2022
No! Involuntary sterilization has long been used to control people of color and disabled people of all genders. Mandatory vasectomies is the opposite of reproductive justice and bodily antinomy. Not only is this not funny, it is ignorant of history and centers whiteness/abledness
— Deliciously Conflicted (@DConflicted) June 26, 2022
All of this is to say that calls for the sterilisation of men, even made as a joke, have a long and dark history that shouldn’t be invoked as a response to further injustice. Plus, the idea doesn’t even make practical sense.
Facts About Vasectomy
Let’s break it down.
First of all, not all vasectomies are reversible and vasectomy reversal surgery becomes less likely to succeed the longer its been since it was done. Vasectomies are designed to be and are considered a permanent form of contraception.
Estimates suggest that around 75% of vasectomies are reversible after three years. From there it drops down to about a 10% success rate after 20 years. On top of this, it’s a surgery not covered by public healthcare and costs thousands of dollars to do privately.
The idea that we can perform vasectomies on young men “until he’s deemed financially and emotionally fit to be a father” would likely result in a catastrophic decline in population levels. This is why the practice is generally only recommended for older men, those who have already had children, or those who are absolutely certain they don’t want them in the future.
Secondly, as Grainger also points out, even if the practice was viable, how could you trust that a man has had one if you’re using that as a contraceptive option? Vasectomies can fail, sometimes years after being performed, meaning there is still a need for abortion services.
While the point of these posts and arguments is to make men think about state interference in their sexual reproductive functions, we shouldn’t really be throwing this idea around without contemplating the history and the inferences of such a policy.
Restrictions over bodily autonomy are bad across the board. Fighting one injustice with further injustices is not the solution.