The need for contraceptive and family planning services is often unmet, especially among lower-income women. However, the history of the provision of these services is fraught with coercion and mistrust: in 1979, in response to forced sterilization practices among doctors working with poor and minority populations, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare imposed regulations on the informed consent process for Medicaid recipients requesting sterilization. The government mandated, among other requirements, a 30-day waiting period between consent and surgery and proscribed laboring women from providing consent. Initially intended to prevent the exploitation of poor women, these rules have instead become a barrier to many women receiving strongly desired, effective, permanent contraception. More critically, the regulations are ethically flawed: by preventing women from accessing needed family planning services, the Medicaid consent rules violate the standards of beneficence and nonmaleficence; by treating publically insured women differently from privately insured women, they fail the justice standard; and by placing constraints on women's free choice of contraceptive methods, they run afoul of the autonomy standard. The current federal sterilization consent regulations warrant revising. The new rules must simultaneously reduce barriers to tubal ligation while safeguarding the rights of women who have historically suffered mistreatment at the hands of the medical profession. These goals could best be obtained through a combined approach of improved clinician ethics education and a new standardized sterilization consent policy, which applies to all women and which abolishes the 30-day waiting period and the prohibition on obtaining consent in labor.
The federal government's special consent requirements for tubal ligation, which apply only to Medicaid recipients, are ethically problematic and overdue for revision.
Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, University of Chicago Medical Center, Chicago, Illinois.
Corresponding author: Benjamin P. Brown, MD, 5841 S. Maryland Avenue, MC2050, Chicago, IL 60637; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Financial Disclosure The authors did not report any potential conflicts of interest.