Review of 'The Means of Reproduction'
Michelle Goldberg's The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World describes how an international movement of feminism and reproductive justice began when women were appointed to head U.S. programs started in the late 1950s to curb overpopulation. Experts predicted that overpopulation in developing countries would lead to starvation, which would slow development, cause environmental damage and tempt the masses to turn to state "Communism."
Funding was provided to USAID, the Ford Foundation, International Planned Parenthood Foundation, and the International Women's Health Coalition for contraception and safe abortion and made foreign aid dependent on accepting them. They pushed to create the UN Population Fund.
WOMEN TRANSFORMED UN POLICY
Women changed these programs' racist, sexist methods of treating women in the developing world as objects that must be controlled. They asked women what reproductive help they needed. They provided funding when women said they needed healthcare for their children, literacy training, bank loans for small businesses, and legal education to know their rights.
But genetic engineering, irrigation and chemical fertilizers, which produced larger harvests, made the threat of overpopulation temporarily seem less pressing. The religious right that helped Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush into power joined the Catholic hierarchy to oppose proven strategies of contraception and abortion in favor of abstinence. Goldberg describes the many gruesome results of these policies in Latin America where women still die, not only from illegal abortions but because doctors give them drugs to stop miscarriage or refuse to operate on ectopic pregnancies.
During George W. Bush's administration, religious conservatives appointed to U.N. commissions lied that UNFPA funded forced abortions in China. Even when all evidence disproved this, the administration still used it as an excuse to cut UNFPA funding.
SISTERHOOD BETWEEN NORTH AND SOUTH
The religious right also exploited the notion sometimes promoted by the left and even some feminists, that empowering women in developing countries interferes with traditional cultures. But Goldberg shows that anti-abortion laws are often an artifact of colonialism. More importantly, she shows that women in developing countries resist patriarchal control of their fertility and other anti-woman practices on their own and are glad to receive help from Western feminists in the form of funding and public awareness. She gives an example of an African woman, Agnes Pareyio, who used funds from Eve Ensler's V-Day Foundation to create a shelter for girls who run away from female genital mutilation.
Many Westerners think that world overpopulation can only be controlled by forced contraception, sterilization, and abortion. Recently, the religious right claimed that only forcing women to be submissive, childbearing wives can raise the falling birthrate of European countries with aging populations. Goldberg proves both notions wrong. Women limit the size of their families and are better able to take care of their children when they control their own fertility. At the same time, women assured of equal marriage partnerships and the right to continue their careers feel safe enough to have children.
SELF-DETERMINATION A RADICAL ACT
While Goldberg doesn't describe the role the feminist movement played in this international women's liberation movement, she does explain that listening to women and empowering them to be self-determining individuals is not only a radical act that improves everything in society but a necessary one for solving the world's most pressing problems. Women who are educated and in control of their own finances use them to improve the health, economy, and development of their communities. The African HIV/AIDS epidemic has not been solved by restricting female sexuality, but it can be helped by freeing women from rape, genital mutilation, and forced marriage as well as by helping them protect themselves with condoms. Ending the selective abortions of female fetuses in India and China would prevent the potential political instability that experts say might result from a larger ratio of men to women.
This book shows that the globalization of human rights does not have to come at the expense of cultural identity. The desire for freedom, to be in control of one's life, is a universal drive. It does not lead to selfishness and social disintegration as right-wingers would have it, but to the exercise of social responsibility. The book quotes several experts saying the global liberation of women is one of the most important issues of our time.
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