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A Vasectomy Historian on Why Male Sterilization Won’t Solve the Abortion Problem

In the wake of Roe being overturned, ‘sterilize men’ has become a resounding war-cry. But as Georgia Grainger explains, it‘s just about the furthest thing from a useful solution

On June 24th, the Supreme Court officially overturned Roe v. Wade — the landmark 1973 ruling that made safe, legal abortion a constitutional right — making good on the leaked draft that predicted the move back in May. In the week since, people have taken to social media to respond in horror and to share urgent information about how those in restricted states can still access abortion. 

Many of those expressing their anger have also echoed a common sentiment: that if women are forced to give birth, men should be forced to get mandatory vasectomies. For some, the intention behind this is to show the absurdity of politically controlling another person’s body and reproductive choices — something that many only deem intolerable when applied to men. Or, as one Twitter user eloquently put it: “The vasectomy debate is… a hypothetical meant to illustrate that people view infringements on the bodily autonomy of women as neutral, while infringements on the bodily autonomy of men as human rights violations.” 

However, others appear to be more serious in their calls for mandatory vasectomies, urging those who “create sperm and can get someone pregnant” to “go get a vasectomy.” Part of the allure, the more sincere tweets allege, is that vasectomies are reversible, meaning a guy of any age, with or without kids, could use it like a temporary contraceptive. 

Except, this isn’t invariably the case. As well as not always being reversible — and, in rare cases, failing at preventing pregnancy — vasectomies aren’t as easy to access as you might think. Men face many of the same barriers as women seeking sterilization, including resistance from doctors based on the fact that they “might change their mind,” as well as an astronomical expense if they do decide to (and are able to) reverse it. Likewise, calling for forced sterilization of any kind misses the point in the argument for everyone having bodily autonomy. Importantly, vasectomies don’t solve the abortion debate — just as any form of birth control isn’t an alternative for abortion, a vasectomy doesn’t reduce the need for an abortion when one is needed.

In response to all this, Georgia Grainger, a PhD student at Glasgow’s Centre for the Social History of Health & Healthcare who researches the history of vasectomies, shared a Twitter thread explaining why she’s going to “lose her shit if she sees one more feminist suggest ‘mandatory vasectomies’ for men, that vasectomies prevent abortion or that vasectomies are any kind of solution to this situation.” Unsurprisingly, her thread got a lot of heat, both from anti-abortion and pro-abortion activists alike. 

So, to delve deeper into the controversial debate — and learn why mandatory vasectomies aren’t a solution — I asked Grainger to expand on her thread, share the history of forced sterilization in the U.S. and highlight some of the conversations we should be having instead.

At one point, there actually were mandatory vasectomies for some men in the U.S. Can you briefly explain the history of that? 

Mandatory vasectomies in the U.S. began in 1899 with [a physician named] Dr. Sharp, who began vasectomizing inmates at the Indiana Reformatory in Jeffersonville. At first he thought it might change their behavior to make them less likely to be violent or sexual — kind of like castrating a dog for behavioral problems — because they didn’t fully understand the impact of hormones yet. For the record, a vasectomy doesn’t impact testosterone production at all, whereas castration [which removes the testicles and is a totally different procedure] does. But even castration doesn’t make people less violent, as far as we’re aware, so none of it really worked the way Sharp thought it would. 

However, after beginning these sterilizations for behavioral reasons, the rise of the ideology of eugenics — that bad traits (like criminality or mental disability) could be “bred out” of people — led to vasectomies being used for that in early 20th century America. Thinking that men (and women) in prison or institutions for disabled people must have undesirable traits that shouldn’t be passed onto future generations, states began to bring in legislation to authorize eugenic sterilization: vasectomies for men, and tubal ligation or hysterectomies for women. 

In total, 30 states had legislation for eugenic sterilization [at first, this was for prisoners and those in institutions, but after World War II, poor people and minorities were targeted, too]. Some had involuntary eugenic sterilization, where doctors could perform it without the patient’s consent, while others had “voluntary” eugenic sterilization, where patients were often promised shorter prison times or other benefits if they consented. But as many of those sterilized had developmental or mental disabilities, how much they could consent is unclear. 

In 1927, the Supreme Court upheld the case Buck v. Bell — which has never been overturned — allowing non-consensual (“compulsory”) sterilization of “the unfit” (disabled people) in Virginia. Approximately 64,000 Americans were sterilized for eugenic reasons by 1963, with 39 percent of those being men given vasectomies. A disproportionate amount of those sterilized were people of color, with Black and Latinx people in particular being sterilized in huge numbers. Though this practice isn’t well-known, disabled people can still be sterilized against their consent in 31 states — not through old laws that have not been repealed, but through current and sometimes recently enacted laws.

Why, then, are mandatory vasectomies not a solution to the current abortion situation?

While I completely understand the anger of having our bodies controlled, I see a lot of people calling for “mandatory vasectomies” as a response, suggesting that men could have their vasectomies reversed when they want to be a father or, sometimes, when they “prove” they’re capable of being a father. These calls are usually not serious — although I’ve seen some people say they are completely serious — and are instead to show how absurd abortion bans are.

However, there are a few issues I have with them. First is that they spread false information that vasectomies are just long-acting reversible contraceptives (like IUDs). This isn’t true. A lot of vasectomies can’t be reversed. But, beyond that, many men have been forcibly vasectomized throughout U.S. history — as far as I understand, the estimates are over 30,000 men in the 20th century. 

So mandatory vasectomies aren’t really a useful tool to show how absurd the abortion ban is, as they’ve already been used legally for over a century in America. Many people calling for them aren’t aware of this aspect of U.S. history, because it’s not widely taught. So I think this is a really important time to educate people on the fact that what they’re “satirically” calling for has happened in recent U.S. history.

How did people respond to your Twitter thread criticizing calls for mandatory vasectomies?

I’ve had hundreds of people tell me they’ve learned a lot, and that they didn’t know about the involuntary eugenic sterilization programs in U.S. history. I’ve had some people say that even with that knowledge, they’d continue calling for mandatory sterilization, which is absolutely their choice, but I think the number of people saying they didn’t know about it and would no longer use that argument really demonstrates why this kind of education is necessary.

I’ve been surprised that some feminists were angry at me for, as they put it, centering the discussion on men. I can understand that anger — especially at a time when there is so much anger to feel — but I’m only sharing my research specialism, which does happen to be about men’s contraceptive choices, as well as responding to posts already centering men by suggesting we force vasectomies. I’m not trying to make this about men’s feelings at a time when I believe women’s feelings and experiences should be forefront; instead I’m trying to educate people about the reality of forced sterilization, and how it’s not as unlikely a scenario as people might think and that it has historically been used to disproportionately affect people of color and disabled people.

What do you think of the skyrocketing interest in vasectomies post Roe v. Wade being overturned?

I’ve seen a lot of men talk about how this development has encouraged them to book their vasectomy consultation, which I think is fantastic. Vasectomies are a relatively low-risk option, and are as reliable as other contraceptive options. I definitely recommend that any men who don’t want children, or who already have as many children as they’d like, think about whether a vasectomy is an option for them, and talk to their doctor about it. 

However, the increased interest in mandatory vasectomies is upsetting, because it demonstrates how little people recognize that, historically, restricted reproductive rights for women have also come alongside restricted reproductive rights for marginalized men. Yes, the men on the Supreme Court are unlikely to ever be subjected to mandatory vasectomies, but there are thousands of men across the U.S. who a lot of the conservative right-wing would probably be quite happy to vasectomize, and I don’t think we should encourage them even as a rhetorical device.

What conversations about vasectomies, birth control and abortion should we be having instead?

Something that a lot of women don’t realize is how difficult it can be for men to even access vasectomies. We’re used to being told that we’re “too young,” “will change our minds” and other patronizing things when we ask for permanent sterilization options, and I think it’s easy to assume that men wouldn’t be told that, but they are. I’ve heard from countless men who’ve tried to get a vasectomy but were told they had to be over 35 if they didn’t have children, or over 30 if they did, and that they’d have to have their wife’s permission, or, if they weren’t married, they wouldn’t be approved for one.

So, along with better provision of contraceptive options for women and fewer restrictions on access to them, we also need to be making it easier for men to take responsibility when they want to. We need reproductive choice for everyone.

I know you don’t have a ton of abortion access where you are either. How does it feel watching the events in America unfold? What’s it been like in the U.K.?

It’s difficult to watch. I’m from Northern Ireland, which has never had legal access to abortion; recently abortion itself was decriminalized there, but there’s no actual health-care provision for it (no abortion clinics, doctors, etc.), so pregnant people still have to travel to England to get an abortion. There’s also been an uptick in anti-abortion protests in Scotland — where I live now — alongside an increase in right-wing attacks on LGBTQ+ rights. 

Though not as severe as the shift in the U.S, I think our anti-choice, anti-queer campaigners are being encouraged by the developments in the U.S, and are seeing it as their time to be louder here too, which is scary. It demonstrates how international these ideas and trends are, and how important it is for us to learn from and support one another. A lot of campaigners in Europe — especially in Ireland and Poland — have spent decades campaigning for abortion rights and providing illegal-but-safe abortions, so there’s a lot of knowledge and strategies there for American campaigners to pull from as well. There’s solidarity on this side of the Atlantic for American women right now, as we know the struggles all too well.