Motherhood Is Not Off Limits to Disabled Women, And I'm Sick of Doctors Telling Me Otherwise

I cannot even count the number of times doctors have offered me a hysterectomy as if they are doing me a favor.
Publish date:
May 2, 2016
ableism, motherhood, disability rights, when doctors are assholes

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a mother. In fact, I used to say I wanted twelve children. While I no longer want a soccer team worth of children (I'm 34, so that ship has likely sailed), I still cannot wait to become a mother. Although this is a natural desire for many women, the thought of me becoming a mother seems to startle others – especially doctors. Many in the medical field cannot fathom me – a disabled woman – wanting to be a mother.

Shockingly, I cannot even count the number of times doctors have offered me a hysterectomy, acting as if they are doing me a favor. No, these hysterectomies were not offered for medical purposes but rather a result of their personal biases. When I respond, "someday I intend to use my uterus" doctors seem completely surprised and disapproving. When I go on to explain my intention of eventually having children, I basically have to pick their jaws up off the floor.

By all accounts, these experiences are based entirely on ignorance. I am a well-educated woman, who is currently pursuing a PhD. I have practiced law for nearly a decade. I own a home with my partner of seven years. I am healthy and there is no reason to believe that I will face complications during pregnancy. On paper, I am considered the "perfect" candidate to be a mother.

Of course, I realize that my experiences are not unique. Indeed, research shows that women with disabilities often face coercive tactics designed to encourage sterilization or abortions because they are deemed not fit for motherhood. Looking back on history certainly helps to explain these experiences. The United States has a shameful practice of curtailing the reproductive rights of disabled women. The eugenics movement characterized the first half of the 20 century, where more than 30 states legalized the involuntary sterilization of people with disabilities. Such appalling practices even gained the blessing of the United States Supreme Court in the historic case of Buck v. Bell.

Although involuntary sterilization is, for the most part, a thing of the past, eugenics-based ideologies persist, particularly within the healthcare settings. This is not surprising given that studies have repeatedly found that the attitudes of doctors and other health care professionals toward people with disabilities are as negative, if not more negative, than the general public. For example, one study surveyed the "attitudes of 153 emergency care providers, only 18% of physicians, nurses, and technicians imagined they would be glad to be alive with a severe spinal cord injury. In contrast, 92% of a comparison group of 128 persons with high-level spinal cord injuries said they were glad to be alive."

It would be a lie if I said I did not internalize this knowledge or experiences. For 34 years, I have contended with society's predominant perceptions about my quality of life. Although I have lived a great and successful life, others believe — mostly implicitly, though sometimes explicitly — that my life is less because I am disabled. Ironically, I believe my life is greater because I am disabled. The opportunities I have had and the people I have met have greatly enriched my life. Yet, facing these prevailing beliefs certainly have an effect. Despite being proud to be a disabled woman, there are days when I question my self-worth and wonder if maybe my life is less. Luckily, these days are few and I am able to push through...I think?

This internalized ableism has led me to question, at times, whether I should be a mother. Maybe these doctors are right, maybe I shouldn't reproduce. Is it fair to my future children to be raised by two disabled parents? Is it okay that I won't be able to play ball with them or pick them up off the ground? Ultimately – most days – I am able to overcome these questions and realize that my children will be just fine. They will be loved and raised in a nurturing home. In fact, research suggests they might actually benefit from having disabled parents.

Fortunately, I have found a doctor who appears to respect — dare I say, encourages – my intent to become a mother. Of course, I know that her opinions may change, and I am prepared for that. Someday I will be a disabled mom. Not only will I be a disabled mom, but I will be a good mom. Until then, I say to doctors, "back off and leave my uterus alone!"