Disability rights advocates and medical ethicists praised a precedent-setting ruling Friday by the Illinois Appellate Court denying a bid to sterilize a mentally disabled woman against her will.
The woman, identified only as K.E.J. in court records, isn’t capable of raising a child on her own, but her guardian failed to prove that sterilization would be in her best interests, a three-judge panel in Chicago ruled unanimously.
[ . . . ]
The ruling was the first appellate opinion on the issue in Illinois.
“It’s extraordinarily significant” because it guarantees the disabled a court hearing, said Katie Watson, a Northwestern University professor who wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of about two dozen medical ethicists.
[ . . . ]
K.E.J., 29, suffered a brain injury as a child when she was struck by a car. As a result, she cannot be left alone to operate a stove or perform most household chores.
The woman lives with her aunt, who was appointed as her guardian in the mid-1990s. In 2003, the aunt filed a “petition for tubal ligation” in Cook County Probate Court, arguing that her niece had a bad medical reaction to other birth-control methods.
At a bench trial in 2005, K.E.J. testified that she hoped one day to have children. “I will love taking care of them,” she said. “I will love, you know, to see how they grow.”
Seeing our atrocious history on forced sterilization in this country, I’d say that this ruling is oh, several decades overdue. I personally found both Pregnancy and Power and Killing the Black Body to be excellent primers on this subject as well as great books (but I’m sure that there are other great books I haven’t read that focus primarily on this issue — if you know them, leave the titles in the comments). But the simple version of the facts is that for many decades, America participated in and promoted forced sterilization of those who were deemed unfit to pass on their genes. That included women of color, the poor and those who were referred to as “feeble-minded” — disabled women (the phrase was also used to justify sterilization of other socially-scorned women, like those who were promiscuous or sex workers). Many people believe that this is still happening, like with the Norplant situation several years back (also covered in Killing the Black body), and there is more or less undeniable evidence that it is still happening to non-English-speaking women and the disabled.
We often treat disabled people as though they are undeserving of certain things in life, and sexuality and parenthood are pretty high up on that list. I do not think that being unable to raise your children on your own makes you unworthy of giving birth to and raising children. And I certainly don’t see any justification for a forced-sterilization of a woman who has made it clear that her wishes are otherwise; we need to see it as equally heinous to forced-birth and forced-abortion. By it’s very nature, a fundamental right is not conditional, and believing in reproductive justice means believing in it for all. And so I applaud the court and congratulate disability activists on this win; I can only hope that the success continues.