Birth Rights


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Every once in a while some woman gets fed up with the constant news of war, poverty, greed, environmental degradation, and corruption, and publicly growls, “You know, if women ran the world, it would be a better place.” Detractors immediately howl back, reminding us of the plague that was Thatcherism, but it turns out that we don’t need a matriarchy to improve the world. Just improving the lives of women, guaranteeing their rights, and allowing them to decide their own fates independent of religious or societal control would help piece our world back together.

  • The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World by Michelle Goldberg. Penguin Press. 272 pages. $25.95

Muhammad Yunus started the Grameen Bank to offer microloans to the rural poor, allowing them to start small businesses and work their way out of poverty. He quickly noticed that women allowed to earn their own incomes “show remarkable determination to have fewer children, educate the ones they have, and participate actively in our democracy.” By 2007, 97 percent of his borrowers were women, and he had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Other economists have noticed similar trends. During his reign as chief economist for the World Bank, Larry Summers said that the most effective way to improve living conditions in the developing world is to give young girls access to education. Educated women with an income are more likely than men to spend their money on improving the well-being of their families and communities. Provide women access to birth control and safe abortions, and their birth rates stabilize. It would seem that the U.S. should be actively pursuing the empowerment of women around the world, then, as we talk about amounts of fuel and food and potable water insufficient for a growing population. Instead, the U.S. has been mostly indifferent and occasionally detrimental to the well being of women.

In The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World, Michelle Goldberg provides an overview on the reproductive rights of women worldwide, and how the U.S.’s involvement has complicated policy in other nations. In her previous book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Goldberg chronicled the rise of Christian conservatism and the blurring of the lines between church and state. Women’s rights are pretty stable in the U.S. — for all the talk of overturning Roe v. Wade, at its best (or worst, depending on your viewpoint) the right wing is only able to pass a few restrictions and complicate the lives of those seeking abortions. Unfortunately, those cultural wars are exported to the developing world, and women die as a result.

Take the global gag rule, which is reinstated by every Republican president and retracted by every Democratic president. When in place, it cuts off aid to family planning groups that perform abortions or provide pregnant women with abortion referrals. As a result, clinic workers have to choose between funding and the risk of closure, and watching while the death toll from unsafe abortions rises. President Obama has predictably taken the global gag rule away, but the only time we really hear about it is when one president or another is issuing an executive order.

We don’t hear much about them, but the gag rule does have real world consequences. Goldberg writes, “According to the World Health Organization, of the 42 million abortions performed in the world each year, 20 million are unsafe, and nowhere in the world are abortions more dangerous than in Africa. Botched abortions kill 36,000 African women each year, representing more than half of the global total of between 65,000 and 70,000 annual deaths.” Those figures are all the more atrocious when you consider that for decades the U.S. has had stores of manual aspirators — inexpensive, sterile instruments that can be used by a caregiver with minimal training to administer a safe abortion. Goldberg mentions that a few desperate women even administered their own abortions with the aspirator.

In countries where women are allowed to control their own fertility through consistent access to birth control and safe abortion, birth rates slow and family health improves. Sometimes, however, the birth rates slow too far. While it might seem strange to have chapters on over- and under-population in the same book, both are dangerous for the stability of a society. Developed nations like Italy and Germany are finding themselves with an overwhelming aging population and a dwindling workforce. Immigration can only help so much, as it causes inequality, resentment, and — as we saw a few years back when Paris was on fire — societal unrest.

As Europe is now discovering, unless real programs to help women with the burden of motherhood are put into place, women will happily have very small families with an average of fewer than two children per household, and continue working. Some religious organizations interpret this as proof that women’s place is at home (perhaps birthing that future male workforce). Yet countries like Poland, where that pressure to keep women at home most certainly exists, actually have birth rates lower than those of other European nations. The Scandinavian countries approached a population crisis in a different way: They granted mandatory time off for both mothers and fathers, created nationalized day care, and reformed the tax code to prevent men from declaring their wives as dependents. As a result, their birth rates stabilized.

Population issues are a delicate issue because it is so easy to slip into racist imperialist mode. The word “eugenics” gets thrown around a lot when people start talking about the need for population control in developing nations. Complicated figures like Margaret Sanger (the original founder of Planned Parenthood) are labeled Nazis by some in the pro-life community — Sanger because she kept company with academic and scientific proponents of eugenics (which, people forget, was widely supported in the American intelligentsia at the beginning of the 20th century) and made some questionable statements about using birth control for “racial progress.” Her honest belief seemed to be summed up in her book The Pivot of Civilization, in which she writes that family planning “is no negative philosophy concerned solely with the number of children brought into this world. It is not merely a question of population. Primarily it is the instrument of liberation and human development.” Those who argue that high immigration rates are dangerous are labeled racists.

Men and women in the population control movement have occasionally forgotten that women don’t only want access to birth control. Sometimes they want help for infertility or immunization for their children or programs to help them raise healthier families. Efforts to control population can easily slip from coercion to strong-arming, as with China’s one child policy or India’s mass sterilization projects. It might take longer than giving vasectomies to an entire generation of poor men, but improving the lives of women does help bring stability to populations and society.

But that’s not to say that if you just educate women and give them the Pill, a happy equilibrium will magically be reached. In India, it was in the most financially independent and well-educated population that a disturbing trend emerged: female feticide. Dowries for girls were crippling families, so when it became possible to determine the sex of unborn children, women started aborting female fetuses. The practice has become so widespread that the central government outlawed sex-determination tests in 1994. But some regions are still reporting birth rates of 798 female children to every 1,000 males, and even the wealthy suburbs of South Dehli have a skewed ratio of 900 girls to every 1,000 boys. As India’s society becomes more masculinized, newly married women are discovering they are expected to sexually service their husband’s brothers as well, and they are becoming increasingly subservient. Domestic violence rates are up, and women are sometimes forced by their in-laws or husbands to abort their pregnancies against their will.

“There is no society on earth that does not discriminate against women,” Goldberg writes. She offers plenty of examples to back up her claim. There is real progress being made as nations slowly wake up to the fact that improving the lives of women improves the health of the entire population, but there’s still a lot of work to do. There was rejoicing in the feminist community when Obama repealed the global gag rule, but it’s important that these issues don’t disappear from the public eye until the next Republican strikes it down again. • 15 April 2009