What is bodily autonomy?
Bodily autonomy means people control what happens to their bodies. Bodily autonomy means people get to make their own decisions about what happens to their bodies. All people have the right to bodily autonomy.
Bodily autonomy is important to people with disabilities. In the past, other people didn’t respect people with disabilities’ bodily autonomy. People with disabilities didn’t get a say in what happened to our bodies. Today, this sometimes still happens. It doesn’t happen as much anymore, but it does sometimes still happen.
What is the right to privacy?
Privacy is the right to keep some things hidden about yourself. The right to privacy is a right that says the government should not interfere with people’s privacy. When we say “the right to privacy,” we are not talking so much about people doing things in private. We are talking more about the government not getting to decide what people do in their personal lives. The right to privacy is the foundation for a lot of rights. That means without the right to privacy, people wouldn’t have a lot of other rights.
For example: People have the right to get birth control without the government knowing about it. This is because people have the right to keep their medical decisions private from the government. Getting birth control is a medical decision. Right now, the government can’t say only certain people can get birth control. This is because of the right to privacy. The government has to let anyone who wants birth control get it.
Sterilization is when someone has surgery that makes it so they can’t have children anymore. Forced sterilization is when the government forces someone to be sterilized. When forced sterilization happens, the person getting sterilized doesn’t have a choice whether they get sterilized.
The government used to forcibly sterilize people with disabilities a lot. The government especially used to forcibly sterilize people with intellectual disabilities a lot. The government also used to forcibly sterilize people of color a lot. The government did this because it didn’t want people with disabilities to have children. The government didn’t want people of color to have children.
Are People Still Forcibly Sterilized Today?
Although most states no longer have laws saying certain people should be forcibly sterilized, forced sterilizations still happen. In the last few years, a lot of forced sterilizations have taken place in prisons and jails. In many cases, people were told that they would have to serve less time in jail or prison if they got sterilized. The people technically had a “choice” whether or not to get sterilized. But it wasn’t a real choice. If they didn’t get sterilized, they would go to jail or prison for longer. That makes it not a real choice.
In 2020, a worker at a jail in Georgia talked about what was happening in the jail. The worker said that the people who ran the jail were forcibly sterilizing immigrant women in the jail. The worker said that the women who had been forcibly sterilized didn’t know why they were forcibly sterilized.
People with disabilities under guardianship can still be forcibly sterilized in many states. If a person’s guardian says yes to the sterilization, the doctor performing the sterilization might not even ask the person themself. 31 states and Washington, D.C. have laws that allow people with disabilities to be forcibly sterilized. These laws let other people make the decision about whether to sterilize a person with disabilities. The other people might be the person’s guardian or a judge. Only 2 states, Alaska and North Carolina, ban forced sterilization of people with disabilities.
Forced Sterilization and Transgender and Intersex People
Some transgender and intersex people are also forcibly sterilized.
When a baby is born, the doctors look at its body. Then the doctors say if the baby is a boy or a girl. Someone who the doctors say is a boy is assigned male at birth. Someone who the doctors say is a girl is assigned female at birth.
Transgender people are people whose gender is not the same as the sex they were assigned at birth. A transgender woman is a woman who was assigned male at birth. A transgender man is a man who was assigned female at birth. Nonbinary people can be assigned either sex at birth. (Nonbinary people are people who are not men or women.)
Sometimes when a baby is born, the doctors can’t tell if the baby is a boy or a girl. Or someone might be assigned a sex at birth. But when they grow up, their body doesn’t look like most bodies assigned that sex at birth. They might have different genitals (sexual body parts). Or they might have different hormones (chemicals in their body). Their body doesn’t fit into the sexual binary of male or female. That person is intersex.
Transgender people and intersex people have been forcibly sterilized throughout history. This continues today. In many countries, transgender people have to get sterilized in order to update their identification to their correct gender. Identification is things like a driver’s license or passport. There is no good reason to require this. It only takes away transgender people’s bodily autonomy. It only takes away transgender people’s right to make choices about their bodies.
Many intersex babies have surgeries to make their bodies look more “normal.” For example, an intersex baby might be assigned female at birth. The baby might have surgery to make their genitals look more “female,” like creating a vulva and a vagina. The baby might have surgery to take out “male” body parts, like testicles. Sometimes, this surgery involves sterilizing the baby so they can never have children.
This is wrong! Making someone look more “normal,” regardless of what they might want, is wrong. It is especially wrong to do these surgeries on babies, who cannot say yes or no to the surgeries. Many times, when intersex babies and children have these kinds of surgeries, their parents are not told why they are having the surgeries. The parents are only told their child needs surgery. It is wrong to lie to parents about why their child is having surgery. It is wrong to make these decisions for intersex people instead of letting them make the decisions themselves.
Our Right to be Sterilized (If We Want To Be)
Right now, forced sterilization of people with disabilities is legal in most states. People with disabilities don’t want forced sterilization to be legal! We want the right to make our own choices about our bodies. This includes the right to get sterilized if we choose to.
Some reasons people might choose to get sterilized are:
- They never want to be pregnant
- They already have children but do not want to be pregnant again
- They do not want to risk getting someone else pregnant
- They are transgender and would feel better if they got sterilized
- They have a very high risk of getting certain types of cancer and getting sterilized would make their risk less
Some states ban forced sterilization of people with disabilities. But these states also make it very hard for people with disabilities to get sterilized if we want to. That isn’t right! All people, including people with disabilities, have the right to make decisions about our bodies. We have the right to choose to be sterilized if we want to. It should be our choice whether we get sterilized, not anyone else’s.
Guardianship and supported decision-making
When someone is under guardianship, they can lose some or all of their rights. (Learn more about guardianship from our page about how guardianships work.) Guardianship gets used to control people with disabilities. Guardianship gets used to control the decisions we make, including the decisions we make about our bodies. Guardianship is always wrong.
Sometimes when a person with disabilities is under guardianship, the person’s guardian decides to sterilize them. This is legal in many states. A guardian might decide to forcibly sterilize a person with disabilities to make sure the person is “safe.” A guardian might worry that if the person got pregnant, their disabilities would get worse. Or, the guardian might worry that the person couldn’t be a good parent if they had a child.
This is wrong! People with disabilities can be good parents. We should have the right to make our own decisions about our bodies. This includes the right to choose or not choose to be sterilized. Our bodies belong to us, not our guardians or anyone else. Guardians should not be allowed to sterilize us against our will. And, nobody should be under guardianship to start with.
Some people with disabilities need a lot of help making choices. But they still don’t need guardianship. They can use supported decision-making. Supported decision-making is a way to make choices. A person with a disability chooses someone to help them understand or communicate a decision. The person they choose is their supporter. The person with a disability is free to make their own decision but has help from the supporter. (You can learn more about supported decision-making from our page about it.)
Court cases about bodily autonomy and the right to privacy
Buck v. Bell
Buck v. Bell was a court case decided in 1927. Carrie Buck was a woman with an intellectual disability who lived in an institution. The state of Virginia wanted to forcibly sterilize her because she had an intellectual disability. The state of Virginia had a law saying people living in institutions could be forcibly sterilized.
Carrie Buck brought a lawsuit against the people who ran the institution. A lawsuit is when you take someone to court. You tell the court what the person did or is trying to do to you. Then, you ask the court to tell the person what to do. In Carrie Buck’s case, she was asking the court to tell the people who ran the institution not to forcibly sterilize her. The lawsuit made its way to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. They have the final say on laws. The Supreme Court is made up of 9 Justices. Justice is what we call a judge on the Supreme Court. Justices serve for life. Once they are on the Supreme Court, they can either die or retire. The President of the United States picks Justices to be on the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court decisions matter to people with disabilities. Some Supreme Court decisions said people with disabilities have certain rights. Other Supreme Court decisions said people with disabilities do not have certain rights.
The Supreme Court decided it was okay for the state of Virginia to sterilize Carrie Buck. The Supreme Court said it was okay because Carrie Buck had an intellectual disability. The state of Virginia forcibly sterilized Carrie Buck. The state of Virginia had a law saying people in institutions could be forcibly sterilized until 1974.
Griswold v. Connecticut
Griswold v. Connecticut was a 1965 Supreme Court case. The state of Connecticut had a law that made birth control (also called contraception) illegal. Contraception is medicine that makes it so you can’t get pregnant as long as you keep taking it. Estelle Griswold was the director of a health care clinic in Connecticut. She prescribed birth control to married couples, even though it was illegal. Estelle Griswold was arrested and fined $100 for prescribing birth control. She appealed her case. When you appeal a case, you ask a higher court to look at the case again. Estelle Griswold’s case made its way to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court decided that the Connecticut laws were wrong. The Supreme Court decided that birth control had to be legal, at least for married couples. The Supreme Court said this was because married couples have a right to privacy in their marriages. The government doesn’t get to decide what married couples do in their marriages.
There have been two more Supreme Court decisions that extended the right to birth control to other people. In Eisenstadt v. Baird, the Supreme Court said that unmarried (single) adults had the right to birth control as well. In Carey v. Population Services International, the Supreme Court said that anyone over 16 years old had the right to birth control.
Doe ex. rel. Tarlow v. D.C.
Doe ex rel. Tarlow v. D.C. was a court case decided in 2007. Three women with intellectual disabilities brought a lawsuit against the Washington, D.C. Developmental Disabilities Administration. The Developmental Disabilities Administration is the part of the Washington, D.C. government that works with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The women said that the Developmental Disabilities Administration forced them to have surgery against their will. One woman said she was forced to have eye surgery. The other two women said they were forced to have abortions.
Doe ex rel. Tarlow v. D.C. did not go to the Supreme Court. But one of the lower court judges who decided it is now a Supreme Court Justice. That Justice’s name is Brett Kavanaugh. In Doe ex rel. Tarlow v. D.C., Brett Kavanaugh said that the Developmental Disabilities Administration didn’t have to ask the women what they thought about the surgeries. Brett Kavanaugh said that what the women thought about the surgeries didn’t matter.
That is wrong! What the women thought about the surgeries did matter. It should have been the women’s choice whether they got the surgeries, not the Developmental Disabilities Administration’s decision. Everyone has bodily autonomy. The women in Doe ex rel. Tarlow v. D.C. had bodily autonomy. It is wrong to force someone to get any surgery that they do not want to. It is wrong to say someone’s wishes don’t matter because they have a disability.
What can we do?
We need to keep fighting to make sure the government protects bodily autonomy and the right to privacy for everyone. There are a few ways we can do this.
- Support guardianship reform. Some states are passing laws that make it harder to put someone under guardianship. Some states are passing laws that make it easier to end a guardianship. If your state is talking about passing these laws, you should support them.
- Support supported decision-making laws. Some states have passed laws that mean people with disabilities can have formal supported decision-making agreements. This makes it less likely people with disabilities will be placed under guardianship. You can learn more about which states have passed supported decision-making laws from the National Resource Center for Supported Decision-Making.
Support laws that make it harder to forcibly sterilize people with disabilities. Right now, only 2 states ban forced sterilization of people with disabilities. 31 states plus Washington, D.C. have laws that say it’s okay to forcibly sterilize people with disabilities. We need more laws that protect people with disabilities’ right not to be forcibly sterilized. We need more laws that protect our right to make decisions about our own bodies.