Bioethics Blogs

Legally Competent, But Too Young To Choose To Be Sterilized?

In the UK, female sterilisation is available on the NHS. However, as the NHS choices website points out:

Surgeons are more willing to perform sterilisation when women are over 30 years old and have had children.

Recent media reports about the experience of Holly Brockwell have detailed one woman’s anecdotal experience of this attitude amongst medics. Ms. Brockwell, 29, explains that she has been requesting sterilization every year since she was 26. However, despite professing a firmly held belief that she does not, has not, and never will want children, her requests have so far been refused, with doctors often telling her that she is ‘far too young to make such a drastic decision’. In this post, I shall consider whether there is an ethical justification for this sort of implicit age limit on consenting to sterilization.

To begin, it is important to clarify a few things about the nature of female sterilization. The surgery, which is normally performed under general anaesthetic (although it can be performed under local anaesthetic), involves blocking or sealing the recipient’s fallopian tubes. The procedure is over 99% effective as a method of contraception, and its effects are permanent. It is possible to undergo a procedure to reverse the effects, but the success rate of such reversals is only around 50%-60%, and it is not usually available on the NHS, costing around £4’500-£5’500 privately. Whilst there are other forms of reversible contraception whose effectiveness is comparable to sterilization, the latter may be preferable insofar as it does not involve the use of hormones that may induce adverse side-effects, it does not require a painful device to be implanted into the body, and it does not interfere with the spontaneity of sexual intercourse.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.