Chanelle McKenna was a typical 11-year-old girl.
She loved reading and listening to pop music. She enjoyed school, had always been very academic, and when she grew up she wanted to be a solicitor.
Since she was a baby, she’s had cerebral palsy.
It was at age 11 her mother agreed, in unison with medical professionals and school staff, that she should be involuntarily sterilised. She was taken without her consent to a hospital and a forced hysterectomy was performed. Chanelle’s choice to parent was forever stolen.
“My mother decided to organise the forced hysterectomy because it was convenient for her not to be able to deal with my menstrual periods, and unwanted grandchildren that she believed I wouldn’t be able to care for,” Chanelle says.
Chanelle’s mother never once explained why she was suddenly taken into hospital.
“When I was lying unconscious on the operating table, I experienced an astral projection — more commonly known as an out-of-body experience. I remember I looked at my body and felt extremely sad.”
Chanelle emerged from the operation confused, scared and in severe pain. She had no idea why she was unexpectedly in hospital. It would take weeks before she could sit properly.
The enormity of this has caused Chanelle life-long emotional pain and physical trauma.
“The doctor was supposed to put dissolvable stitches in. However, he didn’t,” Chanelle, now 46, explains. “When the nurse removed the stitches after two weeks, it felt as if I was in a river full of piranhas and they nibbled at my skin, just for the fun of it.
A few weeks later, Chanelle remembers returning to school. Her mother never mentioned the operation, and pretended nothing had happened. It wasn’t until two older girls at her school began teasing her that she realised what had actually happened.
“One of them said to the other, ‘I feel so sorry for her because she will never be able to have children.’ I don’t know how they knew, because they were much older than me, and I’d never met them before,” Chanelle says.
“When I think back now, although I felt sad at the time, I didn’t grasp the seriousness of the true nature of what that meant for me, because I was still too young. I was only 11 years old.”
‘I will never be a stereotype’
The full extent of the ramifications of what had happened to Chanelle hit in her late 20s. She says it felt “like an atomic bomb”.
“It was when everyone around me got married or fell pregnant,” she says.
“My cousins and nieces who already had children complained how naughty their children were, and that I should be thankful that I would never go through that, because how would a woman with a disability ever be able to cope with naughty children.”
Chanelle is currently studying a Health Science bachelor degree. This is the first time she has spoken out.
When I arrive in Brisbane to meet her, I’m greeted with a huge smile. She is warm and bubbly, and instantly we connect. Smart, strong and vivacious, Chanelle uses a speech-generating device to communicate as some of her speech is hard to understand.
“As a child I was stereotyped as someone who would never be able to achieve anything in life,” she tells me. “From there it snowballed. I made myself a promise when I was young: I would show everyone how wrong they were about judging me. I will never be a stereotype.”
Growing up as a woman with cerebral palsy was at times challenging for Chanelle, but she says this is due to medical staff not assisting her in bettering herself.
She felt like everybody had given up on her from a very early age. For instance, she went to kindergarten at age three, but feels this was only to give her mother a break.
“My mother never treated me as an adult. According to her, I wouldn’t have been able to be a suitable mother due to my disability. But if it weren’t for the forced hysterectomy, I would have had children: either one or two,” Chanelle says.
Chanelle should have been able to become the mother she wanted to be. How is it possible her choice was stolen from her as a child?
Carolyn Frohmader, executive director of Women with Disabilities Australia, has over 20 years’ experience advocating for women and girls with disabilities.
“There is no national, uniform and legally enforceable legislation prohibiting the sterilisation of children, and the sterilisation of adults with disability in the absence of their prior, fully informed and free consent.”
Rights removed, choice removed
When I ask Ms Frohmader why parents of children with disabilities would make the decision to have their child sterilised, it appears the best interests of the child are rarely a central factor.
“It’s the supposed ‘burden of care’ that menstrual and contraceptive management places on families and carers, and the widely held societal attitudes that disabled women cannot be effective parents,” Ms Frohmader says.
“So there is pressure to prevent pregnancy in disabled women, particularly women with intellectual disabilities.
“Women with disabilities are typically seen as child-like, asexual or over-sexed, dependent, incompetent, passive and genderless, and therefore considered inadequate for the nurturing, reproductive roles considered appropriate for women.”
But as Ms Frohmader asserts, this is clearly not the case, and Chanelle is an example. Every day when she sees a baby, a toddler, a pre-schooler and a teenager, she endures the longing for what should and could have been, as Chanelle explains.
Chanelle has never been able to forgive her mother for her decision to endorse a forced hysterectomy, and this has created a wedge between her and her family.
The repercussions of the operation still affect her daily, with the emotional toll heavy and unforgettable.
“There are long, still nights, as well as days, when I cry my heart out for the injustice I endured, based on the perception and for the convenience of others,” she says.
“The one natural gift to be a mother others took away from me, just so my mother and others could benefit from that. It was never theirs to take.”
As Ms Frohmader explains: “In the case of sterilisation, the fact that such a procedure may be deemed ‘authorised’ or ‘lawful’ does not in any way obviate the reality that a woman with a disability, often a very young woman or girl, undergoes a medical procedure to remove non-diseased parts of her body which are essential to her ongoing health and wellbeing.
“For more than 15 years, The United Nations treaty monitoring bodies have categorically confirmed that forced sterilisation of children is a clear breach of some of the most fundamental human rights.
Chanelle is trying to change this. She believes it’s time the rights of people with disabilities are finally recognised.
“That’s why I have decided to speak out against this injustice,” she says.
“I want other women and young girls to know it’s wrong and they have the right to say no, because it is their body. We all have the right to be able to become whatever we want to become, to have a future just like everyone else.”
Chanelle Mckenna shouldn’t have been denied the right to parent.
Disability is not a burden, or something that needs to be ‘fixed’. She is a human being, and her desire to be a mother will never fade. Her right to have a baby should have been undeniable.
Eliza Hull is the 2018 ABC Regional Storyteller Scholarship recipient.