Slice, Dice, and Julienne: The Politics of Sterilization
Issue #39, September 1998
Right about the time I turned 25, I decided that my ruminations on procreation had reached a critical mass and that it was time to act on my conclusions. If the picket fence, the nuclear family, and a kidney-shaped swimming pool in the back yard weren't for me, I might as well do something about it by taking the surgical plunge. I didn't imagine that having myself sterilized would be a particularly difficult thing to do. In fact, it turned out to be a bit more of a hassle that I thought it should be. I had, at first, considered my vasectomy to be a practical convenience and a personal matter. Yet, when I went began to put out feelers to actually accomplish the act, it turned out to have a lot more political, social, and symbolic significance than I had expected.
I had to go to three different urologists to find a doctor who would perform the operation. I had started by visiting the most convenient urologist I could find. This turned out to be a mistake. This first guy told me that he had a policy of not performing sterilization on a young person without children. He offered potential lawsuits as an excuse. On further probing he essentially told me that he thought that I didn't know what I was doing. Apparently, while I was well beyond the age of rationally choosing the nation's leaders, of dying in combat, of purchasing alcohol, and of being convicted for crimes as an adult, I was not yet worthy to decide the ultimate disposition of my genetic material. Naturally, I was incensed by the guy's audacity. He knew at a gut level what my sterilization would mean; it would mean rejecting this country's dominant moral norms about family and reproduction. In refusing to perform the procedure, he also refused to accept my ability to make my own decisions and, what is more, reject prevalent moral norms. He assumed I would eventually come around and join the rest of humanity in its splendid mission of procreation. Incidentally, after enduring his condescending paternalism, my only reward was a bill for $80.
Considering this first appointment a fluke, I sought another physician's aid, but again to no avail. In this case, the Urologist assured me that he respected my opinion and my rationale, but doubted the wisdom of my choice. He would only agree to perform the procedure if I would bank my genetic material. Yet, this fundamentally conflicted with my motivation in the first place. Banking my sperm would have left open the remote possibility of future procreation, which in itself, would accomplish exactly what I was trying to avoid. What is worse, having my sperm on file opened the possibility of one day losing control over my genetic material. It would be housed away, safely chilled in liquid nitrogen, in effect, removed from my control. Given these basic conflicts with my goals, the additional cost of banking my genetic material, while equally burdensome, was almost irrelevant.
About this time, I was beginning to become fed up with scheduling appointments and taking time off from work to be told "no." But since, short of autocastration, about the only way to accomplish sterilization is with the assistance of another, I had to get creative in my search. I sensed a stigmatization. For again, with sterilization, we come up against the Christian aversion to willfully cutting the flesh, defiling God's container because we have come to the conclusion that He has made an error. By this time, I knew that I would have to step outside of the cultural heritage that bound the decisions that these doctors were making.
It seems absurd, in retrospect, that I finally selected a doctor with an Indian surname, a Hindu urologist. Call it a strange and not entirely sensible prejudice, but I scanned the list of urologists in search of an Indian surname. Of course, he could have been just as opposed as his Christian counterparts and for all of the same reasons. But I would like to believe that it was because he carried a different kind of cultural baggage that he gave me no trouble whatsoever. He took into consideration my thought process on the matter and decided that I was indeed intelligent enough to make decisions for myself. Perhaps it was mere chance that I happened upon such an enlightened fellow. Perhaps there is no cultural or religious connection. But maybe there was a connection, and maybe the marginalization that I had encountered was part of my cultural tradition, but not his.
In any dialogue on the matter, one inevitably comes to the discussion of the whys and wherefores, with 'why?' being the most popular question. Most people simply assume that preventing inconvenient reproduction is my primary motivation. But when I mention my real motivations, the conversation can get tense. It is hard not to get into an "I/thou" dialogue when discussing such matters with someone, particularly someone who has children. When one's own actions become a critique of another, it is hard to simply shrug it off as just a "lifestyle choice." At the risk of co-opting the marginalization of yet another group I suggest my decision not to reproduce harvests some of the same ire from the mainstream population that gays do. In a late 20th century post-industrial culture, choosing not to procreate is a political act, a critique of a culture that must produce more consumers to maintain its hegemony. Thus, it is also a critique of the entire tradition that has led to this time and place. If the American family is a sacred cow, then with the surgeon's knife I have slain it in my own little way.
Fortunately, I do not have a mandate from God or culture to contend with. I do not believe that it is my duty to breed, to produce more believers, more consumers. Nor do I feel a "natural" urge to continue the genetic line. I am quite sure that others will accomplish such important matters without my assistance. Perhaps, as a male, I am fortunate that the proverbial "biological clock" is not ticking for me, nor will I have to endure its supposed beckoning. Is it possible that such a ticking clock is culturally, rather than biologically wound? I only whip out this sort of suggestion when I realize that a cocktail party has gone too far to be amusing anymore. This is usually right about the time that the brie runs out.
My decision has had many ramifications. My family, for example, has its expectations. There is the odd circumstance that I am the last person in my family of my father's lineage to be available to "pass on the family name." Though such expectations are generally unspoken, I recall my father's brother recently asking me when I was going to get married and have children. He pointed out that I was the last of the lineage, as his wife had borne female children. And of course my aunt's children were beyond consideration, as she had no longer any claim to the precious family name. Thus, unless I spawn there will be an end to the tradition. This is a concept that has always seemed foreign to me, given the counterintuitive, some would say heinous, passage of family names via the father's line. As it has been observed, this tends to relegate women to being mere vessels for a familial identity from which they are artificially estranged. These notions are rather foreign to my extended family and it would be unsettling to share my own thoughts on the matter. I have yet to come out of the closet, genetically. In a sense I have joined a small and peculiar sect consisting of those who choose to cut themselves, those who are driven to stanch the flow of fluids, to break the chain of genetic transmission, to end a lineage. Therein lies the symbolism of cutting with the knife, of severing a cultural link which is held so dearly that most never even consider its significance. I think this symbolism, which acts on a instinctual level, fuels the very strong opinions people have on the matter, breeders and non-breeders alike.
I've always thought that sterilization should be free on demand and that breeding is not a divine right. I am often asked, during discussions about my decision, what would be the result of the wide adoption of my viewpoint. I reply that I made my decision based on my estimation of humanity's chances of either getting off this tenuous rock, or learning to control its consumption of ever-dwindling resources. Of course, the human race will go on its merry way until some catastrophe, natural or accidental will snuff us out. But I am not a proselytizer or a fundamentalist. Hardly a pessimist, I am still content to go merrily along my brief stay in this weird realm. Yet, I am sufficiently confounded by the nature of existence to think twice about visiting this terrifying mystery upon another hapless creature.
The only libertine who really matters, Brock Craft lives in Chicago where he works as a systems administrator for a delightfully large corporation. In his spare time he plays the piano and composes collage rock with the Christal Methodists. Look out for their new 7" and CD Satanic Ritual Abuse this December. Brock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org