article

01.16.10

Sterilized for Being Poor?

When a Welfare-collecting mother of nine was allegedly sterilized against her will, she was shocked by the outpouring of public support—for the doctors who did it.

When Tessa Savicki checked into Baystate Medical Center on December 18, 2006, for a Caesarean section, she didn't know it was the last baby she would ever give birth to. Lying in the O.R. with her daughter at her side, the morning after she had delivered a healthy baby boy, she claims she overheard her surgeons make two cryptic remarks. “I heard the doctor on the left side say ‘left one’s done,’” she says, “then the doctor on the right side says, ‘right one’s done.’ I just looked at my daughter because, honestly, I didn’t know what they were talking about."

What she now thinks they were talking about was a tubal ligation. When Savicki's C-section was over, instead of being fitted for the IUD she says she had asked for, her doctors tied her tubes, leaving her sterile for life. She is now suing the attending physicians and the Springfield, Massachusetts, hospital, which told her last May that it cannot find any consent form for the sterilization procedure. She filed her lawsuit on December 15.

“How long before we are paying for all her babies’ kids?” asked one commenter. “Sterilize the whole family—I’ll pay.”

“Honestly, it’s so hard to even explain how you feel,” she says, referring to the moment the nurse told her what happened. “You are shocked, you’re upset, you’re disgusted.”

But Savicki isn't the only one who's disgusted. When her story was recounted in the Boston Herald last week, the public response to her plight was immediate and vicious. That's because Savicki is an unmarried mother of nine who collects Welfare from the state. The two stories about the incident on BostonHerald.com have generated more than 1,000 comments each, the vast majority of them hostile toward Savicki. "Those doctors were true heroes. I knew she was a state-check-collecting waste of space," reads one. "How long before we are paying for all her babies' kids?" asks another. "Sterilize the whole family—I'll pay." And: "We should sterile [sic] all the people on Public assistance for more than 2 yrs."

“It’s been nasty,” says Savicki, who's received dozens of angry texts and Facebook messages from strangers since the story broke. “I’ve been called a slut, a whore—they say I’m pathetic.” She says they've even gone after her children. “They’re saying my kids are crumb munchers, that they are bastards, that they should sterilize my kids so they don’t pay for my grandchildren.”

With millions relying on government assistance, Savicki is being portrayed as a "Welfare queen" for the new decade, the public face of that alleged army of women who mooch off the state and pop out babies with impunity. Such stories helped turn the tide of public opinion against federal Welfare in the 1990s, putting an end to the system that had been in place since the Depression, in which the poor were given federal benefits—for life, if need be—without regard to personal circumstances.

But Savicki says she's not the woman she's being accused of. “People are under the impression that I had nine kids with nine different daddies,” she says, “and that is not true. I had four kids with my previous partner. He passed away in May, of cancer, and that man worked until the week he died, paying child support and taking care of his kids.” As for her current partner, Angel Flores Tirado, she says they've been together for 10 years and have three children. According to Savicki, “Angel has a full-time job. He works day and night, and he supports his kids.” She says Tirado “wanted another boy, and that’s gone. I can’t." Now she worries he'll leave her because she can't bear more children. "I mean, that could actually mess up things, because if it gets to the point where he really wants it—which he better not, because he better love me to stay with me—it could jeopardize my relationship.”

But all this self-defense is academic, says Savicki’s lawyer, Max Borten, a former obstetrician. “The real issue here,” he says, “is who has the right to determine who gets sterilization. The patient? The doctor? A hospital committee? A state committee?” The obvious answer, says Professor Linda Fentiman of Pace University School of Law, is the patient. Fentiman says federal law requires written consent, signed 30 days prior to the procedure—a waiting period put in place in the 1970s because of so-called Mississippi Appendectomies, the involuntary sterilizations imposed mainly upon poor, black women in the early- and mid-20th century.

Despite these safeguards, compulsory sterilization isn't a thing of the distant past. Though it's technically illegal, the state of Oregon sterilized wayward teenage girls as recently as 1981. Three years ago, California proposed elective sterilization for women who gave birth in state prisons—which, considering these women's disempowered position, was widely seen as not really "elective" at all. And last year, Nadya "Octomom" Suleman's story sparked an onslaught of earnest demands for her to be forcibly sterilized. Could popular support for compulsory sterilization make a comeback?

Louisiana state Rep. John LaBruzzo raised eyebrows last year when he presented a plan to offer women who are on Welfare $1,000 to have their tubes tied. Giving the idea more than a whiff of Bell Curve mentality, however, was the fact that his proposal included tax incentives for people with college degrees and higher incomes to have more kids. LaBruzzo's office did not return a call for comment.

Professor Fentiman says there is probably nothing inherently unconstitutional about LaBruzzo’s plan, but she says she believes it is a reflection of what she calls a “closet eugenics feeling in the United States.” She points out that “the fact that [Savicki] is poor and living on state assistance raises a lot of issues for some who think poor people shouldn’t have the same rights to reproduce as everybody else.” Borten, who has received his share of hate mail stemming from the Herald articles, agrees. “When you read the comments and the attacks on her and on me,” he says, “it just blows your mind, because you see how ingrained the bigotry is against poor people.” Borten is careful not to accuse Savicki's doctors of tying her tubes for ideological reasons, and a spokeswoman for the hospital refused to comment on the matter.

Fentiman also points to an apparent paradox in what she believes is the ideology of those who are attacking Savicki. “I think it is ironic,” she says, “that, I would guess, many of the people who would be for compulsory sterilization would also be those who are fervently—what they call themselves—pro-life. But what ties it together, I think, is the lack of respect for women’s reproductive autonomy.” Fentiman sees this disdain for women’s rights as pervasive in medicine. "The history of the medical profession and the way it disregards women’s rights is quite extraordinary... It's so paternalistic."

Still, Savicki's personal past is a sticking point. She had her first two children while she was still a teenager and never finished high school. (She says she plans to get her GED next month.) And she has a history of litigation—in 2001, she sued CVS for selling her an expired spermicide. Nevertheless, she says she believes that how many children she has is no one’s business but hers, and she defends the job she has done as a mother. “I’m trying to teach [my children] the right way to be,” she says. “I tell them they need to go out there and get a good education, get a job, take care of their family. I’m trying, and I’m not doing that bad of a job."

When all is said and done, however, what she truly feels is that it's not our place to question how many children she has. "Does it really matter how many kids I have? They sterilized me without my permission, and here in the United States you have your rights," she says. "No one can tell you to do anything.”

Constantino Diaz-Duran has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Orange County Register. He lives in Manhattan and is an avid Yankees fan. You'll find him on Twitter as @cddNY.