Disability and contraception

“I have the jab so I can’t be blamed for getting pregnant”: Contraception and women with learning disabilities

Michelle McCarthy (pdf)

The very fact that there is a paper entitled this is horrific.  And really shouts about the need to discuss disabilities and contraception.

This is an area which is very entangled with forced sterilisation and issues of consent but I do not believe that either of those should prevent the conversation about disability and contraception.  NB, I have already written about my experience of disability and periods so this is more focused on contraception as birth control.

I’m assuming here that the person in question has capacity to consent to using contraception, whether it’s for safer sex or for other reasons.

Having read about the topic for a while now, there feels like there are a few sections to this debate: coercion to use certain types of birth control, unwillingness to provide birth control and having certain types of birth control off limit.  This is certainly backed up by an Open University report into contraception and learning disabilities:

In some instances women made active and informed choices about contraception that enabled them to control their reproductive futures. In other cases women had used contraception because they felt they had to, or had been coerced; consequently they also had little say in the type of contraception they used. Some of the women also told us they used contraception as medication to regulate menstruation or alleviate menstrual pain.

Coercion to use birth control

As seen in the quote at the top of the post, there can be a pressure (overt or covert) for certain people to use a method of contraception that is daily or long lasting (as opposed to condoms etc which you use at point of sex).  This seems to be strongly related to this idea that women with disabilities should not get pregnant.  This seems particularly evasive for women with learning disabilities.  A group of people who are possibly more vulnerable to coercion.  This is despite evidence that shows a persons IQ is not an indicator of how good a parent they will be.  This attitude is echoed in experiences of people with disabilities who have been pressured into a termination.

There is also the fear around high rates of abuse of women with disabilities, particularly those with learning disabilities, and the fear of a person getting pregnant following abuse.  However this doesn’t address the issue of abuse itself or STIs or psychological impact.  We should not use the risk of abuse to control women’s bodies.  We should be talking to women about what is appropriate in relationships, what to do if things become inappropriate and what puts you at risk of STIs and pregnancy etc.

Two women in the Open University report, both with high support needs, were coerced into having the contraceptive implant when they had lived in a care home.  This is echoed in other literature I’ve read; the very strong “suggestion” that the place at the care home will not be available if they don’t use birth control.  There are other cases discussed where women were put on birth control because they weren’t believed when they said they weren’t having sex.

Coercion can also take the form of discussing the benefits of birth control – such as no periods – whilst not discussing the pregnancy aspect.  This has been used to get someone to use birth control due to fears of risky behaviour.  Passive acquiescence is another form – the patient not being fully informed and the idea of doctor knows best being played on so the patient lets the professional make the decision.

Unwillingness to provide birth control

When I go to the doctors about birth control, there is a general assumption that I do not also need condoms.  When I was not visibly disabled, I would be offered condoms or at least reminded that the pill doesn’t protect against STIs.  Similarly when I was not visibly disabled I was reminded that the pill is ineffective if you’ve been sick, had diarrhoea or are on antibiotics.  This no longer happens.

A lack of accessible literature on birth control and other topics relating to sex education or an unwillingness by medical professionals to take the time to explain these issues is one way in which society is undermining access to birth control.

Another is the assumption that disabled people do not want children and so the conversation is steered in a certain direction.

Off limits

Obviously certain kinds of birth control may not be compatible with certain health conditions and I understand the importance this.  However it seems that there are some medical professionals who filter their information based on the person having a disability eg not talking about the pill to people who have a condition which may cause them to forget to take it.

Taking a personal example for illustration, I would really like a hysterectomy.  I will never have children and having my period is difficult and humiliating for me.  But based purely on my age, that is out of the question.  Obviously this isn’t discrimination because of my disability but other options are out so surely this should at least be a consideration?

As a second option, I would go for the coil but they won’t give me anaesthetic to get it inserted so that is out for me.  Note, the only reason I can’t have the coil is my disability which means I can’t have it inserted without anaesthetic.  There is no greater risk for me to have the coil than for me to take the pill.

And the pill was next on the shopping list of choices…  Whilst I’ve finally found one that is mostly ok so far it has led to a lot of weight gain and I have tried five different types to get here.  The other main options would be the injection, which they don’t want to give me due to my health, and the implant which has low odds of stopping periods compared to the other options.

There are other ways of making birth control off limit to women with disabilities without having to say no.  For example if you can’t get to the doctors – my surgery don’t do house calls, won’t prescribe the pill by phone and obviously the other options are out if you can’t get to the surgery.  My surgery is a group of surgeries and fitting the coil is only carried out at one of these.  There is the inaccessibility of doctors and sexual health clinics and the inaccessibility of information.

All of this echoes prejudices which people carry about disabled people and sexuality, whether consciously or not, and needs challenging.  In order to have a healthy sex life, everyone needs to have access to contraception and information.

End note: The Open University research concludes by acknowledging that whilst little is known about the contraceptive choices of women with high support needs, almost nothing is known about those people who do not have capacity to consent.

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