When 26-year-old tech reporter Holly Brockwell went public with her quest to be sterilised, she sparked a nationwide controversy and added a fresh dimension to Britain’s gender debate.
While some online commenters branded her “selfish” and “heartless” for not wanting children, others said Brockwell’s decision to end her fertility was a sign of mental illness. Complete strangers sent her messages telling her to kill herself.
But the massive backlash from her media appearances was far from the biggest hurdle the now 31-year-old faced in her journey to ensure her childlessness.
The journalist says that for four years she was patronised, challenged and dismissed by doctors who told her she was “too young” to make a permanent decision about her fertility.
But Brockwell says sterilisation was the only option for her.
“I don’t want babies,” she says simply. “Society tends to see the pill as a magic solution, but there’s not nearly enough discussion of the enormous effect it can have on women’s bodies, moods and lives.
“I don’t react well to hormonal contraception, which means the pill, implant [and] injection make me ill and give me side effects no man would be willing to live with.”
When a woman is sterilised, her fallopian tubes are blocked or sealed to prevent eggs from travelling away from the ovary to be fertilised.
Even on the day of her sterilisation, after her numerous appeals were finally granted, Brockwell says she was “talked down to” by her surgeon.
“He was clearly, vocally against the procedure and spent what felt like forever trying to bully me into changing my mind,” she says.
“He even brought in a doctor from the IVF department to guilt me about how difficult it is to have a baby by IVF.”
A year on from the procedure, Brockwell says she has “absolutely no regrets” about her decision to permanently end her fertility.
“I just wish I’d been able to have the procedure sooner. It would have saved me a lot of stress, illness and money for panic-bought pregnancy tests.”
Holly Brockwell appearing on ITV’s This Morning in March 2016 after winning her bid to be sterilised
Brockwell may have become the covergirl for this controversial issue, but there is plenty of evidence that women across the country in their twenties and thirties are also fighting to be sterilised.
A quick internet search reveals numerous discussion threads and thousands of articles around the subject. When The Huffington Post UK reached out to a support group for people who have decided to remain childfree, dozens of women rushed to share their stories.
Decrease In Women Being Sterilised
Many of these young women say they have been ridiculed and denied by doctors who insist they will change their minds about becoming a mother as they get older.
Since the start of the millennium, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of women sterilised in England.
While 35,300 women underwent the procedure in 2000/01, this figure fell by 72.5% in just ten years, with only 9,700 women being sterilised between 2010 and 2011.
Research has shown that this is partly down to the development of long-acting, reversible forms of contraception over the last 20 years.
Thanks to inventions such as hormonal implants and devices like the coil, women can now overcome some of the disadvantages of user-dependent birth control without making a permanent decision about their fertility.
But medical ethicist Dr Anna Smajdor from the University of Oslo believes other factors are also at work.
“I am sure that doctors assume young women may want children and that it is regarded as pathological if they do not,” she says.
“In my experience, this is not the case for men in the same way.
“Our society treats women as the primary, and sometimes the sole person involved in reproduction, and of course this finds its way into consultation practices.”
Steph, a 31-year-old pet carer, certainly found this to be the case.
For women, it’s as if we are all born to churn out children. If you don’t feel like that, they give you more time until you make the ‘right’ decision Steph, 31
First rejected for sterilisation at the age of 26, her plea for the operation was denied again three years later.
Instead, they offered her boyfriend a vasectomy.
Although her partner Mark, seven years her senior, already had a son by a previous relationship, Steph told HuffPost UK the decision was a clear example of sexism.
She explained: “It seems that as a man, you have more right to say that you don’t want children - everyone is quite respectful of that.
“For women, it’s as if we are all born to churn out children. If you don’t feel like that, they give you more time until you make the ‘right’ decision.
“I have been with Mark for six years, but imagine if I was single or had only been with him six months.
“You never know what is going to happen in life,” Steph added. “I still have no choice over whether my body reproduces or not.”
For model and blogger Faith Roswell, a lack of control over her own body was one of the most frustrating elements of her fight to be sterilised.
Finally accepted for the procedure in her late twenties, she spent a decade pleading with GPs over the operation.
“I told my doctor: ‘I’m 28. If I told you that I had been trying to get pregnant for 10 years, you would be helping me.
“I’m now telling you that I’ve been trying not to get pregnant since I was 18. I want you to help me.’
“If I’m trusted to make one decision about my contraceptive health, I should be trusted to make another one as well.”
Between 2000 and 2010, the number of vasectomies performed in England dropped by more than half (56%), down to 18,000 a year.
But vasectomies - described as “simpler, safer and more reliable” by the NHS - still outnumber female sterilisation procedures by 8,300 operations a year.
It’s about trying to give people a sense that they have control over their fertility, but doing it in a way that doesn’t have permanence at that age Professor Phillip Hannaford
For doctors, a young woman asking to be sterilised can present a moral dilemma.
Professor Phillip Hannaford, an expert in female reproductive health and contraception, says: “It’s about trying to give people a sense that they have control over their fertility, but doing it in a way that doesn’t have permanence at that age.
“People get married older and have children at an older age now – I think the average age of the first pregnancy is in the late twenties, early thirties.
“People change partners and often want to cement that new relationship with children,” he continued.
“I can very clearly remember a patient when I was in practice who had heavy periods and wanted to have a hysterectomy. I said: ‘I really do think you are young, let’s try a bit longer’.
“She came back three years later showing me her new baby that she was really proud of and thanking me for not supporting her in that decision.”
But Dr Smajdor disagrees. “I think if doctors did not emphasise the downsides of sterilisation they would not be doing their jobs properly,” she says.
“It is difficult because so many of the emotional risks are contingent and speculative, but still, they need to be considered.
“However, giving the information is one thing; having given it, the woman should make her own decision in the light of these facts.”
HuffPost UK is running a month-long project in March called All Women Everywhere, providing a platform to reflect the diverse mix of female experience and voices in Britain today.
Through blogs, features and video, we’ll be exploring the issues facing women specific to their age, ethnicity, social status, sexuality and gender identity.
If you’d like to blog on our platform around these topics, email ukblogteam@