Broad Recognition


Reproductive Rights Beyond the Binary: Mandatory Transgender Sterilization

At the heart of modern debate of gender and sexuality is the political buzzphrase “reproductive rights.” These liberties are almost universally defined as the license of women to decide when and if they have children through the use of contraceptives and, most contentiously, abortions. However, these narrow definitions ignore many other ways in which people are barred from reproductive agency. In several countries and some areas of the United States, for example, transgender people must undergo full sterilization in order to legally change their sex. This is a clear infringement on personal reproductive rights, and has worrying implications for transgender people as well as women.

In a recent GlobalPost article, Swedish actress Aleksa Lundberg discussed her experience with forced sterilization. When she was 18, Lundberg completed her physical transformation to a fully female body—including the mandated sterilization. Though Lundberg did not protest her sterilization when she was 18, she now feels that she was robbed of the ability to biologically parent her own children, as she was not allowed to preserve any of her sperm.

Sweden is not alone in preventing transgender people from legally changing their sex without sterilization. Similar laws exist in France, the Netherlands, Australia, and some US states—all areas that ostensibly have ostensibly systems for legal documentation of sex changes. In Sweden, many government officials openly express disappointment with the law, which is not the case in the United States. The law may be overturned in Sweden, with strong opponents including the Prime Minister. Yet, in the United States transgender sterilization is a state issue, making legal changes a distant hope.

Legal sex change is an obstacle in any country. Transgender people face a myriad of problems if their presented gender does not match the sexual classification on their driver’s licenses, social security registration, and birth certificates.  A report from the Harvard Kennedy School reveals that 40% of transgender people have experienced harassment after showing identification on which their sex was marked as different from their presented gender. Three percent of these people experienced physical violence. Therefore, it is clearly key that all transgender people have access to identification with their target gender marked.

This sterilization policy poses further difficulties because it assumes that all transgender people will seek full sexual reassignment surgery. Although the same Harvard paper reports that the majority of transgender people take hormones to adjust their physical presentation, few receive full sexual reassignment surgery; only one in five MtF (male to female) and one in twenty FtM (female to male) people will complete full sexual reassignment. Many do not seek the treatment because of its prohibitive cost-$20,000. Likewise, many transgender and genderqueer individuals do not wish to alter their bodies fully, if at all.

By forcing transgender people into sterilization, governments send the clear message that reproduction is strictly for cisgendered, heterosexual couples. This makes parenthood a privilege, rather than a right, and denies transgender people entry to one of the most socially, culturally and emotionally significant roles: that of the parent. This unfairly invalidates the experiences of any nontraditional families.

These policies are troubling not only for transgender people but also for women. By defining individuals on the basis of their genitals, governments also disregard the psychological and social experiences of women. By effectively defining “female” as “that which has no testes,” as was clearly the case with Lundberg, legislatures create a purely sexual image of women—one that does not define them as the many things that they are, but rather as the one thing which do not have biologically in common with men. This gross simplification of the broad spectrum of gendered and female experience limits the ability not only of transgender people to bear their biological children, but also discredits the experiences of people of all genders.

Chamonix Adams Porter is a freshman is a freshman in Yale College.  She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.


Comments (2)

  • Thank you for writing about this—it’s a great analysis. I want to add a couple of points to the very important ones you’ve made.

    Part of the thinking behind these policies has to do with the depiction of trans people as “sexual deviants,” not fit to be around children. We see this also in child custody cases, where parents who are trans tragically lose custody of their own (biological or adopted) children just because of their gender history. Forcing trans people to be sterilized is another attempt to keep them away from children, in the grand tradition of fear-mongering about child predation.*

    This is also a way of enforcing some of our most tightly protected gender norms, ones which relate to reproduction. Gender expectations fluctuate from decade to decade, but the idea that men should impregnate and women should bear children has been pretty constant across time and culture. When men like Thomas Beatie carry pregnancies, or transgender women knock up their girlfriends, it challenges the one norm people felt was most solid—and because the patriarchy relies on gender norms (particularly ones that are easily bioligized) to sustain itself, it pushes back pretty hard.

    *The victimization (sexual or otherwise) of children is obviously a really big deal, but the spectre of it is used in really messed up ways when it isn’t at all relevant.

    posted by ihaveahammer      November 18th, 2011 at 12:37 am

  • [...] of Puerto Rican Women, Mississippi Appendectomy, Forced Sterilization of Native Americans, Mandatory Transgender Sterilization, Sterilization of Women and Girls with Disabilities for just a few examples.) Posted on [...]

    posted by Your Arguments Against Our Permanent Birth Control are Bullshit | Gender Focus – A Canadian Feminist Blog      October 13th, 2013 at 8:45 pm

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