RDBook: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World: An Interview with Michelle Goldberg

The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World
By Michelle Goldberg
(Penguin, 2009)

On January 20, the first self-identified feminist was named President of the United States. In his first presidential act of feminist solidarity Barack Obama repealed the Mexico City Policy—a.k.a. “the global gag rule”—a Reagan-era policy that denies aid to non-governmental organizations “which perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning.”

The global gag rule has come to be seen as a litmus test of the current US President’s stance on women’s rights, though it’s just one part of the complicated history of the impact of American reproductive rights policy in countries around the world. Journalist and author Michelle Goldberg has been writing and thinking for a long time about the ways in which women’s intimate lives are tied to global forces.

In her new book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World Goldberg tackles issues like population control, female infanticide, genital cutting, HIV/AIDS, and global poverty. She makes the convincing case that women’s oppression is at the heart of many of the world’s problems; that, as she puts it, “underlying diverse conflicts—demography, natural resources, human rights, and religious mores—is the question of who controls the means of reproduction.” I recently spoke with the author, and RD contributing editor, about Means of Reproduction:

MV: The timing of the book’s release is impeccable. When did you embark on this project and did you consider the political relevance it might have for the 44th US president?

MG: I started the book almost three years ago, not long after my first book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism came out. That book was about religious fundamentalism in domestic American politics, but while researching it, I was struck by how the movements I was covering were branching out into global issues. In a way, the American anti-abortion movement has had more of an impact abroad than at home.

The Supreme Court has limited the movement’s scope of action here, so Republican presidents have rewarded their base by giving them tremendous influence over international policy on women’s health—an area few Americans pay attention to. Part of the impetus for the book was that I found the globalization of the culture wars fascinating. But I also wanted to provide some kind of historical and big picture context for the battles that were inevitably about to be fought over things like the global gag rule and the funding of the United Nations Population Fund.

Most wouldn’t immediately draw a connection between the War on Terror and reproductive rights. How do you link the two?

Although it is true that conservatives have used their very selective outrage over the abuse of women in the Muslim world to garner support for their foreign policy, what’s tremendously ironic is the way that, even as Bush railed against countries like Iran and Sudan, his administration was working with both of them to thwart or roll back international agreements on women’s rights and health. Parts of the American Christian Right did the same thing, even as they demonized Muslims in front of domestic audiences.

It was an amazing axis of hypocrisy.

And as the book shows, there’s a long precedent for this sort of thing. The Vatican once offered to help Libya reconcile with the West after the Lockerbie bombing in exchange for supporting its stand against the global reproductive rights movement.

Indigenous movements for women’s rights can be much more effective than movements led by outsiders (I’m thinking of Agnes Pareyio and Sandra Kabir in Kenya and Bangladesh, respectively). How can Westerners get involved without coercing or compromising the integrity of an indigenous organization’s work?

There are a number of organizations that are really good at channeling aid to women working at the grassroots. The Global Fund for Women, for example, does amazing work. On a more macro scale, people in developed countries often have access to levers of power that people on the ground don’t. Agnes Pareyio’s story is instructive. She’s an amazing Masai woman in Kenya who runs a shelter for girls who have run away from home to escape female circumcision. She enrolls the girls in boarding school, and, because circumcision is such a right of passage among the Masai, she has created an alternative ceremony that offers girls a meaningful transition into adulthood. No outsider could do what she’s doing. But one reason that her work is possible is that the United States and other developed countries have pressured Kenya to ban female circumcision. One result of that is that parents can’t enlist the police against Pareyio when she shelters their daughters.

One of the things I tried to do in this book is to show the real connections between some of the seemingly abstract debates that happen at the international level and the experiences of women on the ground. Through the international feminist movement, women working at the grassroots can sometimes leverage the privilege of their allies in rich countries. Alex De Waal described how this process works in his fascinating book AIDS and Power:

Blocked from direct routes of access, African activists meet with their Western counterparts, who have access to policy makers in Washington and Brussels, who in turn squeeze African governments.

He was talking about HIV activism, but the same dynamic exists in the realm of women’s rights. It’s kind of a strange way to effect social change, and it raises all kinds of really knotty philosophical questions about democracy and sovereignty. But people have to use whatever tools they have.

How has the issue of cultural imperialism, an historically conservative ideology, been co-opted by the anti-abortion movement in conversations around family planning?

Before the rise of the religious right, the United States had a long and controversial history of bringing contraception and safe abortion services to the developing world, and encouraging changes in cultural norms and desired family size. This was generally driven less by concern about women’s rights than by terror of overpopulation, which was incredibly intense in the 1960s and 1970s.

Since then, women’s rights activists have mostly taken over the structures created by the population controllers, and they’re also doing work that helps women around the world challenge prevailing power arrangements. Partly as a result, conservative and fundamentalist forces accuse feminists of being American imperialists. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government cloaked its draconian abortion ban in anti-colonialist rhetoric—even though his policy mirrored that of the hated United States! At the same time, both American conservatives and representatives of the Vatican revel in posing as the staunch defenders of traditional cultures under assault by decadent cosmopolitan elites. They really enjoy turning traditional leftist critiques against liberals.

This book’s agenda is explicitly feminist. What were some of the ways your perspective was challenged during the course of this project?

The stories that challenge my own preconceptions and that don’t lend themselves to easy answers are always the most absorbing to me. There are several of them in this book. Being in India and seeing the way sex-selective abortion is both devaluing women and sowing the seeds of demographic catastrophe really challenged some of my deeply held beliefs about the primacy of reproductive choice. Also, when I started writing this book, I didn’t take fears about European population decline that seriously—they seemed to me to be rooted in racism and a fear of immigration. But the more I learned, the more I realized that the kind of really abrupt fall-off in birthrates that we’re seeing in countries like Poland, Italy, and Japan has very serious consequences for the future, and in Europe, it may threaten some things liberals really cherish, like generous welfare states.

You briefly mention loaded terms like “female genital mutilation” and “female feticide.” Can you talk a little bit about the choice of language in discussing some of these issues?

Both of those terms are really controversial, for different reasons. There are some African women who feel that “female genital mutilation” is horribly judgmental. One of the women I quote in the book says, “I may be different from you and I am excised, but I am not mutilated. Just like I will not accept anybody calling me by the ‘N’ word to define my racial identity, I will not have anybody calling me by the ‘M’ word to define my social identity, my gender identity.” At the same time, others will argue that using more neutral terms like “female genital cutting” or “female circumcision” downplays the horrors of the practice, and implies a kind of relativism. The fact that the terms are so loaded underscores how polarized the debate is—it’s really hard to discuss something if you can’t even agree on what to call it.

“Female feticide” is a little different. Almost everyone in India uses it to refer to sex-selective abortion. To a Western feminist, it sounds quite jarring, because it echoes the kind of language that the American anti-abortion movement uses. Since there isn’t much of an anti-abortion movement in India, there’s less sensitivity about such rhetoric. Still, some people there worry that the campaign against sex-selective abortion could morph into a campaign against abortion more broadly, and they’re troubled by the use of the term. At the same time, you have to speak in language that people understand. After a few weeks in India, I found myself using the phrase “female feticide” myself—it’s just so much a part of the conversation.

The stories you recount tend to be very extreme yet moving examples of what the horrific consequences can be for individual women when reproductive rights policies don’t take the reality of their lives and needs into account. The stories lend a sense of humanity to the issues themselves that tends to be lost in the debate. Was there a story that you wanted to include, but didn’t?

I’d have loved to tell the story of Manju Rani, this really inspiring, unstoppable women’s health advocate in Haryana in Northern India. She went through hell with an abusive husband who tried to force her into prostitution, escaped the relationship, but found that she had no place in the world as an unmarried woman. Her family pressured her to find a new husband, but as a divorcee, she ended up having to marry a very poor man. Her life has been so hard, but she’s a dynamo—she’s this tiny little person who talks a mile a minute and has this radiant, infectious grin. She’s had no formal education, but is a really strong feminist whose politics grow out of her own experience. She works for a local NGO distributing family planning and reproductive health advice in her region, and is also involved in local politics. She’s a total inspiration.

Many of the problems that you bring up could potentially be solved through the implementation of a less stratified economic system. Why isn’t that where the focus should be?

For some people, that is where the focus should be. My book is about the realm of reproductive and women’s rights—that doesn’t mean that I think it’s the only realm that’s important, or that it’s not connected to other systematic problems. At the same time, you’re never going to get a less stratified economic system as long as women are oppressed. It’s fascinating how much research there is showing the connection between women’s rights and economic development. Giving women more control over their bodies and their lives is one of the most important things you can do to fight poverty. One of the things I hope this book does is show how that works.

You dedicated a substantial amount of this book to the role that Christianity and Catholicism play in the global reproductive rights movement, but you only briefly touched on other religions (Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism). Why didn’t they warrant as much attention?

I’m not sure I agree. I write quite a bit about the alliance between conservative Muslims and Christians to fight women’s rights at the UN. I also deal with the connection between Islam and female circumcision. The chapter about India’s missing girls is set in the context of Hinduism and Sikhism. That said, the international anti-abortion, anti-family planning movement is largely driven by Catholic and evangelical groups. One major theme of this book is the global fallout from the culture wars in the United States, and Christianity plays a much bigger role here than any other religion.

How much funding for family planning and abortion services in the developing world comes from the developed world?

That’s a hard question to answer, because it varies so much by country. Asian countries cover much more of their own costs than poorer countries in Africa, for example. And of course there are so many different funding sources—governments, foundations, NGOs, etc. But according to the Guttmacher Institute, donor agencies in developed countries were responsible for just over $2 billion of the approximately $11 billion spent on sexual and reproductive health services in the developing world in 2000.

The United States really spearheaded the movement for global family planning, which is why it is ironic that it has done so much in recent times to dismantle that movement. What’s prompted the change of heart?

It had everything to do with the rise of the Christian Right and the transformation of the GOP into a populist, religiously conservative political party. Republicans used to champion family planning because they saw it as key to international security. In the 1960s, many hardcore Cold Warriors were in a panic that overpopulation was going to cause such misery worldwide that countries would succumb to communist revolution. George H.W. Bush was so obsessed with distributing contraception that he was nicknamed “rubbers!”

Things changed in the 1970s and 1980s. Women’s rights advocates really seized control of a lot of the population infrastructure and turned the focus from demographics to women’s health and freedom. With that, a lot of the national security types lost interest in the field. At the same time, the American anti-abortion movement rose up and came to dominate the Republican Party. Thanks to Roe v. Wade, there was only so much that Reagan and subsequent Republican presidents could do for their anti-abortion base at home, so they had much more latitude to reward them by doing their bidding at the global level.

Do you worry that this book might be seen as an example of the “white man’s burden”?

Sure, but what can you do? Writing about these issues at all from a Western perspective is obviously fraught in all kinds of ways. At the same time, they’re fascinating in part because there are so many taboos and political baggage surrounding them. I can’t really imagine not wading into a subject I find interesting because it’s somehow un-PC. Besides, the West, particularly the United States, is already deeply involved in shaping policies that have profound effects in other countries, so these issues need to be understood here.

Ironically, for many of these issues—like female circumcision, abortion, sex selection—it’s not the practice itself that is a problem, but the societal context in which the practice happens that limits a woman’s ability to freely make her own choice. Can you talk a little more about that?

I’m not sure I totally agree with that. Certainly, in many cases, the fundamental problem is one of power and autonomy. The problem is not that women are having too many children, it’s that, in many places, they lack access to contraception and are having more children than they say they want. But there are other cases—I’m thinking specifically of sex-selective abortion—where women, embedded as they are in their cultures, are making problematic choices. One of the dilemmas I tried to bring forward in the book is that sometimes the ideal of choice, venerated by Western feminists like me, conflicts with the goals of women’s rights advocates on the ground. Gita Sen, the pioneering Indian economist, put it really well, I thought: “A woman’s choice to have a sex-selective abortion may reflect the fact that she has very few rights.”

A version of this can be found at RH Reality Check.