Sterilised and silenced

I’m having a lot of thoughts about women’s rights to have or not have children – especially mentally ill and/or disabled women. 

1 in 6 New Zealand women has a disability. 1 in 5 women (compared to 1 in 7 men) will experience depression in their lifetime. 51.3% of New Zealand is female  – 2.121 million people.

That’s 353,503 women with a disability. 424,204 who will experience depression. I’d say there’s probably some pretty significant overlap between the two as well.

Chris Miller wrote a fantastic piece about the Italian women whose baby was removed and placed in foreign care, ostensibly due to her bipolar disorder, which inspired me to write this. It didn’t happen in NZ, but it easily could have. I wrote recently about a friend of mine, who also has bipolar. Despite doing numerous positive pregnancy tests at home, doctors wouldn’t consider her pregnant, and her request to have her IUD removed was denied. She was told she shouldn’t have a baby because she wasn’t “mentally or financially secure.” She ended up miscarrying, and I think the stress she suffered at the hands of our medical system is at least partially to blame. (Read more about her here: My Body, My Choice and here: My Body, My Choice Part Two).

I’m not very good at math, but I would say given the numbers above, there’s a pretty big cross-section of women in New Zealand who are disabled and have a mental health challenge – and are either already, or would be, fantastic mothers.

As Chris has said, doctors have a tendency not to be questioned. We think they know more than we do – that they even know our own bodies better than we do. They trade on not being questioned because of some amorphous medical degree hanging in the air between them as decision-makers and us as patients. So we don’t say anything. We get silenced.

This morning I saw this ad in the paper:

Sexual health

I was interested in three things about this.

1. The reassurance that women needn’t feel “judged,” awkward, or nervous when asking about sex and contraception. Gaslighting, much? Of course we shouldn’t! But it’s so ingrained in our ridiculous patriarchal society that even I, at 26, struggle to ask questions. Another way of being silenced.

2. The emphasis on contraception as a female responsibility – which, let’s face it, it always has been. Despite years of rumours, there’s still no “male pill” on the mass market and even if there was, we’d still protect ourselves because we live with the consequences.

3. It was odd to me that the ad seemed to suggest contraception is more of an issue in the summer. I wasn’t aware safe sex was seasonal. Perhaps it’s true, but it’s still a strange angle.

In all of this, what messages are we as women getting? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad safe sex services for women are being advertised, I’m glad people are thinking about the safety of babies too, I’m glad options for contraception are available (if still often prohibitively expensive), and yes we do have to take responsibility for keeping our bodies safe and healthy. But when you add in music videos, Barbie dolls, Bob Fucking Jones, religion, abortion, your mother, your sister, Caitlin Moran, your history, your future, your uterus and Everyone Else’s Opinion About It – what do you get then?

I’m reminded of the difficult time with a male pharmacist when I went to get the Emergency Contraceptive Pill a few months ago. The word I’d use is ‘disapproving.’ He asked how many partners I had, if I was having regular STI checks, and suggested that perhaps I use contraception next time. Yup, the judgement is well and truly alive.

It’s confusing to be a woman. It’s confusing to be a woman with a disability and multiple mental health conditions. I am very confused.

If I got pregnant right now, what would I do? Even more than that, what would I be advised to do by doctors? Given the above circumstances, and the fact that I’m on a sickness benefit, I have a pretty good idea.

The stigma of mental health might even keep me silent long enough until I didn’t have a decision to make anymore.

I don’t have answers. I’m just talking. In one of the few places I can.

I’ll leave you with some of the lyrics of the song ‘Take the Pill’ by Emilie Autumn, who spent some time in an asylum. She wrote a book about it which I keep meaning to read. It’s dark but it fits the conversation.

Take The Pill

Take the pill that makes you weaker
Take the pill that makes you sick
Take the pill or you’ll be sorry
Take this bloody pill and make it quick

Take the pill that kills your sex drive
Take the pill that makes you cry
Take the pill that burns your insides
Take the pill that makes you want to die
Just be careful what you say…
Today could be your day…

You no longer rule your body
You no longer own those rights
You will wake up when we say so
You will sleep when we shut out the lights
Enjoy your stay…
‘Cause you can’t run away…

Best that you’re not procreating
Best that you don’t multiply
Better still, let’s sterilize you
Take this pill, the Doctor’s standing by

See the rest of the song.

4 Replies to “Sterilised and silenced”

  1. Jamie Nicholas (@JamieTNicholas)

    I think in many ways what you get out of this article is what you take into it.
    For example, when I look at this I don’t see anything gender specific about being nervous or awkward about approaching a Doctor etc about sex and contraception, I think that is a general thing, everyone is nervous about that, but because this ad is specifically targeted to females, it comes across in that way.
    Also the summer thing is them just making their ad relevant the same way they probably say the same thing about winter, and autumn 🙂

    Also I think the problem with Doctors being unquestioned is a large problem these days. We want our Drs to be right all the time, and tend to treat everything they say and do as gospel, and punish them very hard for any errors, rightfully or otherwise.
    They speak from a position of authority because it’s important to follow their instructions, and yet they are human the same as the people on the otherside of the desk, and we all make mistakes, and let emotions and bias into our lives.
    Certainly a lot of Drs I’ve spoken to have brought up this issue.

    The issue of ownership, and making decisions about ones own body is a terrifying conversation, and yet something that needs to be discussed, because it exists in a massive grey area where the lines drawn probably have to be decided by society as a whole.

  2. LatteJunkie (@LatteJunkieNZ)

    I was advised to abort my son when I conceived him due to the fact that I was too fat (90kg) and have Ank Spond. I was told I was a silly girl (28, well educated and married) for having fallen pregnant and I should fix my mistake. I did, I went back to work and found an amazing doctor who put all my fears to rest and I have a very healthy 6 year old…

    The messages are mixed and horrible…

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