I was responding to a thread on a
discussion board that began with a question about the
possibility of sterilizing a young woman with developmental disabilities
who had just begun menstruating...
Please don't take this as a 'lecture',
criticism or condemnation. I'm offering it in the spirit of a respectful
and calm analysis...
It might help to remember that you're dealing with a
number of separate issues here, and you may find it useful to take the
time to think through what would be the most effective, status-enhancing, and
least invasive approach to each issue...
1) Your daughter is menstruating
Three cheers! It means that her body is working
2) Menstrual hygiene
Every woman knows that there are several effective
approaches to staying clean, comfortable and healthy at all stages of
the menstrual cycle. Tampons, pads, panties all work. Some women find
tampons physically or subjectively uncomfortable; others are quite
comfortable with this method. Chemical or surgical sterilization would
be considered an over-response to this issue.
The question of whether or not someone can perform hygienic
routines by themselves is another issue entirely and doesn't by
itself determine the choice of hygienic methods.
3) Conception control
Every woman knows that there are many approaches to
this issue, ranging from the least physically intrusive (abstinence) to
the most physically intrusive (surgical sterilization). I'll talk more
about this later...
4) Protection against sexually transmitted diseases
Every woman knows that there are several approaches
to this issue, ranging from relatively effective to relatively
ineffective. However, it's important to note that chemical or surgical
sterilization offers no protection against STDs.
5) Protection against sexual exploitation
Think about how you learned to protect yourself
against sexual exploitation. Take the time to read David Hingsburger's
book, Just Say Know: Understanding and Reducing the Risk of Sexual
Victimization (available on Amazon). Also read David's article,
The Ring of Safety
Note that chemical or surgical sterilization
provides no protection against victimization. This is a crucial issue,
and deserves your absolute attention. But the solutions are, by
definition, environmental and social, rather than physical in nature.
6) Pregnancy, childbirth, child-rearing
If you do a good enough job on 3, 4, and 5 above,
this won't be an issue.
Back to conception control...
First, this child is 14 years old. Any sexual
interference is by definition sexual abuse / victimization. She deserves
systematic, effective, reliable environmental / social protection against being
Second, if in the future she makes a conscious
decision to become sexually active, she must also make a conscious
decision about conception control. She might make a decision to opt
for sterilization (I chose that for myself when I was 35 years old), but
most physicians would probably encourage a young woman to opt for a
non-permanent approach, partly on the basis of the massive hormonal
changes that result from either chemical or surgical sterilization of
women (men have it easier in this regard).
Third, it may be that she is so cognitively impaired
that she is unable to make a conscious, informed decision to become
sexually active and to choose a method of conception control. In that
case, it seems to me that one would sustain the environmental / social
protection against sexual victimization that we afford to young
children. The more she participates in this protective pattern, the
better (refer back to Dave Hingsburger's book).
I'm not just making this up. Faye and I share our
lives with an adopted daughter who just had her first menstrual period!
She's delighted. We're delighted. So what are we doing about...
1) Menstruation? - we're celebrating
2) Menstrual hygiene? - the same diapering system that she's always
used, plus a few extra baths
3) Conception control, protection against sexually transmitted diseases,
protection against sexual exploitation, pregnancy, childbirth and
child-rearing? - one of us is with her all the time; when she has an
assistant, it's a woman who we have known for years, and we don't send
her to places where she would be unprotected.
Notice that I haven't said anything about 'protection
against intimacy' or 'protection against sex'.
Right now, our daughter is not romantically or
sexually involved. If she were to begin moving in that direction, we
would begin to deal with the issues in a pre-emptive way beginning with
protection against sexual exploitation. We would work with her as she
thought through how she would handle her relationship, how she would
protect against exploitation, how she would protect against STDs, how
she would protect against conception. In all of these decisions, we
would work in the direction of solutions that were safe, effective, and
least invasive (but remember, also effective).
Like many women, if she were moving in the direction
of becoming sexually active, she would have to become skillful in
negotiating the relationship with her partner, deal with questions of
prior sexual history, and preemptively choose and use safe and effective methods of
disease control and conception control.
With our assistance and her doctor's assistance we
would encourage her to choose methods of conception control that were
effective, did the least harm to her body, and were the least invasive.
She might decide that she never wants to have
children or that her body is simply not 'made' to have children. In
that case, a permanent method of conception control might make sense;
otherwise, effective and reversible methods would meet the criteria for
I know this doesn't meet your original request for a
referral to someone who would perform a sterilization, and I'm sorry for
that. I would hope that a less drastic option (actually a combination of
options, as I outlined above) would be appealing and make sense.
With respect, and with admiration for your courage in
raising this important question,
David, thanks for lowering the tone
of the rhetoric a little. The problem with your position is, I think,
that it assumes that [my daughter would understand the complex moral
decisions involved in protecting herself]. Very, very doubtful. At the age of 14 she
understands and responds to only the most rudimentary instructions.
She can, of course, be trained. She does, of course, have her own
personality. But she will never understand what this is all about.
Morality will never be a concept she will comprehend.
I believe you, and I understood that from the
beginning. I hope that you understood that my post was intended to
provide a way of looking at the questions regardless of the person's
current (or even future) capacity to understand, express themselves, etc.
The fact that your daughter is very limited in her
understanding and expression means that you are in the position of
making the decisions that I was talking about re: menstrual hygiene,
protection from exploitation, conception control, etc.
I wasn't assuming that your daughter would be the one
to absorb and work with what Dave Hingsburger is saying; David's
understanding is just as important for someone who is acting as a
I am indicating that there is some real value in
making these decisions with a view towards alternatives that are
effective but also minimally invasive. Why? Because this is what you
would do for yourself. There is value in applying the same principles in
making a decision for/with/about someone who is vulnerable that we would
apply to ourselves.
I did not at all assume that you daughter will be able
to effectively consider whether or not to become intimate or to have
relationships. That's why I spent some time talking about the kind of
protection we offer to children (and adults) who have major challenges
in understanding and expression. It's also why I said that in the case
of young children, and adults who carry the same kind of vulnerability
as young children carry, it is imperative that we provide them with outside
When I used the term 'social protection', I didn't
mean 'talk therapy' or 'morality training'. I meant that we control
the social context with vigor and reliability (exactly as we would do
with a very young child). Putting it in very clear terms (which I
probably should have done in the first place), we keep them out of the
hands of predators and pedophiles. We don't put them into situations
where they could be molested. And if we're not there to do that, we
make sure that someone is there who will provide the same kind of
fierce protection that we would -- someone who will act in 'place of the
I think that if you carefully go through all of the
issues and all of the options, and if you deal with each issue separately
and completely, you might find that sterilization is not necessary and
the pressure to move in that direction will go away of its own accord.
Here's what I mean:
If you provide solid, effective protection against
sexual victimization, the issues of conception control, pregnancy,
childbirth, child-rearing, and sexually transmitted diseases simply
disappear. That leaves menstrual hygiene. If that is the remaining
issue, I suggest that sterilization is a rather dramatic response to
My guess is that this is why you might be finding it
so hard to locate a physician who will do the procedure. This is because
in addition to a mandate to assist patients to make fully informed
decisions about treatment options, physicians are also enjoined to work
within the boundaries of 'accepted medical practice', which includes a
(conservative) principle of using methods that are effective but which
at the same time preserve other aspects of the patient's health and
What would happen if a parent of a 14 year old girl
without mental disabilities took her to a doctor and requested
sterilization on the grounds that it would save her a lot of trouble (in
terms of menstrual hygiene, conception control, child-rearing, etc.)?
The fact is that a physician who proceeded with sterilization in that
circumstance would be convicted of malpractice, even if the parents
said they were operating with fully informed consent and the girl
herself agreed to the procedure.
I'm not at all condemning or disrespecting your
pursuing this possibility. I'm just (hopefully) offering a way of
thinking about the real challenges that you face -- an analysis that
may, in the long run, offer you and your daughter a healthy, happy
solution -- a solution with integrity.
As always, with respect, compassion for your struggle,
and warm regards,
© 2003 David and Faye Wetherow !