(originally written for the Guiding Star Project )
A few weeks ago, my husband recounted a conversation that he had had with some coworkers over his lunch break. The topic was birth control; permanent sterilization, in fact. My husband was surprised to hear that several of the guys (in their early 30’s) had already undergone the procedure, and one was seriously considering it. It seemed to be the thing to do.
I can see why this is appealing. Our culture tends to view children (especially ‘unplanned’ children) as a burden. Pregnancy is seen as only something to be undertaken by the financially well-off, at specific, well-planned intervals, and always in moderation. A loving man might see it as his duty to undergo permanent sterilization in order to ‘protect’ his wife from the unbearable fate of future pregnancies.
Women too, are turning to permanent sterilization as a solution to long-term family planning. In fact, women are to be more likely to choose sterilization than men. But why? Again, society’s view of children as a burden certainly comes into play, but it seems to be far more than that. Our culture has divorced our fertility from our biology and sexuality. Thanks to modern inventions such as hormonal birth control, artificial reproductive technologies, commercial surrogacy, and egg and sperm donation, fertility is seen as something that can be turned on and off at will, an accessory or tool to be bought, sold, or discarded. But at what cost? Female sterilization procedures (even those designed to leave the ovaries intact) involve long term risks such as tubal ligation syndrome, premature menopause and hormonal imbalances. Even vasectomies, the supposedly safe and easy way to end the potential for fatherhood, have been linked to side effects such as lifelong autoimmune disorders.
This makes sense when we realize that fertility is not some isolated feature of our bodies. Thanks to our hormones, our reproductive system is deeply connected with the rest of our biology. If you tamper with one part, it is bound to affect the other. But more than simply physically, I believe our fertility is an important part of who we are emotionally, sexually, and spiritually as well. Just ask someone who has struggled with infertility.
Maybe you’re done having children. But what if you aren’t? What if you change your mind down the road? Sterilization reversals can be complicated, expensive, and have no guarantee of success.
But rather than wrestling with the question of whether or not you are really done having children, I suggest a different approach. Instead of viewing our fertility as something to keep or discard, a tool for family building one moment and a frightening liability the next, let’s instead learn to accept our fertility. To see it as part of who we are and the way we were designed. Our inner workings are an intricate dance of hormones and interlaced systems, touching our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls. The ability to bring forth life is such a precious gift, one that cannot be replaced. This is something worth celebrating, whether we choose to use it or not. And whether we biologically procreate or not, our fertility says something about who we are; we are life givers. What a wondrous notion!
The more we learn about our fertility, the less it scares us. Did you know that while men are always fertile from puberty on, women experience cyclical fertility? The female body has its own natural rhythms that determine if and when she is able to conceive. In any given cycle, there are only about six days when it’s possible to become pregnant. Surprised? Many are. Most of us know so little about how our bodies really work. We are unaware of the vibrant hormonal symphony inside of us that dictates our fertility, but also patterns of mood, energy, and creativity. If we fear our fertility, and seek to suppress, turn off, or destroy it, what are we missing? How does it affect our personalities, the way we think and feel, and how we relate to others?
Imagine, instead of sterilizing ourselves, we chose to celebrate our natural selves. What if we could look at our spouse and say, “I am in awe of our ability to create life together! I accept every part of you, and rejoice in your fertility.” Women could learn to identify when their fertile times are and avoid intercourse if they don’t wish to become pregnant. They could experience their cycles as they were meant to, without removing parts or damaging their bodies, and their husbands could forgo surgery and the associated risks.
And then it no longer becomes a question of “Are we done having children?” but rather, “Do we want any more right now?” The future is full of possibilities, free of the fear of regret, and open to communication, trust, and hope. And if you truly are done having children, you are in luck: true natural family planning is over 99% effective at preventing pregnancy.
This is by no means intended to criticize those who have chosen permanent sterilization for their families, but rather a challenge for those who are still debating. I want to encourage all people of reproductive age to carefully ponder the meaning of their fertility. Even if you are certain that more children are not in your future, sterilization is not the only answer. Using natural family planning is a way to encourage intimacy, embrace the beauty of sexuality, and celebrate who we are as fertile beings.
Statistics and information on female sterilization:http://www.glowm.com/section_view/heading/Sterilization:%20Long-Term%20Issues/item/404
Study on immune response to vasectomy: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7283529
Frequently asked questions about natural family planning:http://www.wellspringfertility.com/faq.html
Effectiveness of natural family planning:http://humrep.oxfordjournals.org/content/22/5/1310.long
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