Whatever scientists may claim, mass sterilisation won't set women free

One of the researchers behind the Pill has suggested that in the future, women and men could freeze their eggs and sperm before being sterilised - so they can enjoy purely recreational sex. Would that be liberating? Probably not. 

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Over the past few days 11 women in India have died, and dozens more have been injured, following a government-sponsored sterilisation gone wrong. This is not the first time this has happened; the Guardian reports that between 2009 and 2012, “the government paid compensation for 568 deaths resulting from sterilisation”. In an attempt to control India’s population, the government is paying women the equivalent of £14 to risk their lives and close off all future reproductive choices. Other alternatives, such as sterilisation for men or, god forbid, men having sex without ejaculating in women’s vaginas, are off the cards. The mutilation of a woman’s body remains a price worth paying for a man’s right to deposit semen wherever he pleases.

And yet, however horrifying this news, it comes at a time when women the world over are being encouraged to consider the joys of large scale sterilisation. Professor Carl Djerassi, developer of the contraceptive pill, has given an interview to the Telegraph in which he predicts that in the future, sex could become “purely recreational” due to men and women choosing to freeze their eggs and sperm before being sterilized. Such a trend, argues Djerassi, will provide young women with “freedom in the light of professional decisions or the absence of the right partner or the inexorable ticking of the biological clock”. He doesn’t mention what it would offer to men - he doesn’t really need to - but the idea is that this is nice, liberating, futuristic sterilisation. It will not be a bribe in aid of some government programme but an empowering choice that even rich people would actively choose to make.

Of course, one thing this wonderful plan does not engage with is the issue of pregnancy itself. If the human race is to continue, someone still has to gestate new life at some point, and that someone will invariably be female. Yet rather than minimise the cost to that someone, it seems we’re still obsessed with giving women the “choice” to say “not me, not now”. That is fine, in the short term - but in the long term, we’re still left with the questions “who, and when?”

There are more unanswerables as soon as one considers Djerassi’s proposal in any depth: would everyone have access to this treatment or would it be reserved for the wealthy? Would there be an expectation that if a woman wished to progress in her career, she would have to have had “the treatment”? Would a privileged, career-focussed woman be expected to gestate her own babies or would it be assumed that a less privileged breeder class could take on the role of surrogate? Would we end up with two classes of women, each with their bodies assigned different roles, as in The Handmaid’s Tale? And if not, what would prevent it? It’s not as though we grant women the same bodily autonomy as men to begin with; creating more opportunities for exploitation surely creates further risks.

Reproductive justice is already a mess, without adding in these additional pressures. We know that it’s easier for wealthy women to access abortions; easier, too, for them to afford to feed an extra child should they want one, or to pay for IVF, surrogacy or adoption. It’s easiest of all for men to take on the lightest of personal and financial responsibilities while claiming the role of “Dad”, or to walk away should the role not suit. Earlier feminists recognised all this, campaigning for free childcare, workplace crèches and full recognition of the value of unpaid caring work. More recent feminist thought, with its focus on choice and identity, has taken a step back, presenting reproductive difference as irrelevant to intersectional politics. If you choose not to recognise sex difference - either by identifying out of it or by medically putting it on ice - you can pretend it doesn’t exist (in the short term, at least). But for most people choice remains a function of privilege and our current approach to human reproduction still panders to male and class privileges to an alarming extent.

I don’t have any romantic ideas about “natural” versus “artificial” conception. I wanted children and I am lucky that all I had to do was have sex - far easier and much more entertaining than the alternative. IVF has its place for people who need it, but to make it the default is to assume there is something inherently wrong with female bodies - that the problem is not infertility per se, but femaleness itself. The mention of freezing sperm might offer some vague nod to equality, but let’s be honest: sperm quality might decline with age but no one really gives a damn when men become fathers. Donating sperm is nowhere near as risky and intrusive as donating eggs or undergoing IVF. This is all about women’s bodies and making them “fit” in a world where a) the ideal employee is male and b) the human race needs to be perpetuated at minimum cost to those people - male people - who hold the majority of resources. Offering young women some brief period in the sun during which they can “be like men” - that is, not be automatically viewed as potentially impregnatable - is not the same as offering them freedom or equality.

Djerassi predicts a future in which for the happily sterilised “the separation between sex and reproduction will be 100 per cent”. That may be so, but in a desperately unequal world, who does this really benefit? We can, temporarily, put off the exploitation of women’s sexed bodies for reproductive purposes, but what about the constant, daily exploitation of said bodies in the name of male “pleasure”? What about objectification, sexual harassment and rape? Women are sexual agents in their own right, not a resource to be perfected for male pleasure. Creating a system which, in its barest form, makes older women available for breeding, younger ones for low-paid work and fucking, sounds like a misogynist’s dream. It offers very little to women who might want to have children young, while they’re at their fittest, then continue to be happy, assertive sexual beings for the rest of their lives.

Djerassi is merely imagining a possible future, not shaping all the social conditions for it. Even so, his vision lacks creativity and ambition. Cutting up women’s bodies all the better to exploit them is not a new idea. It has happened in the past and it is happening now, in India and elsewhere. We should be putting all our energies into stopping it happening again.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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