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A Global Look at Women’s Rights

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

Regardless of their stance on abortion, Westerners often have no problem dismissing as backward and misogynistic the practice of routinely aborting female fetuses. But how should we react when wealthy, educated, professional women ask their doctors to abort their girl children? Aren’t wealth and education supposed to help gender equality, not blot out females altogether?

Michelle Goldberg does not shy away from such fraught questions in her new book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World. She often emphasizes how women in developing countries have very good reasons for acting against what many liberal Westerners would deem their reproductive self-interest, an argument some far-left feminists have been making for decades but which has arguably yet to enter the cultural mainstream. Goldberg rehashes some of the traditional cultural relativist arguments, but she introduces new takes on others. She faults skyrocketing dowries, for example, as a major cause of sex-selective abortion in India, especially among the middle and upper classes. Having a girl child is simply not a very good investment if you will have to lavish money and gifts on your in-laws when your daughter marries (and maybe even for years after the marriage, too). In another chapter, Goldberg interviews Northeast African women who support female circumcision (also called female genital mutilation, depending on one’s opinion of the practice). These woman defend the rite as a crucial initiation into a supportive and empowering sisterhood of adult women in the community.

Goldberg is at her best and her most original, though, when showing how religious, conservative, and patriarchal forces have hijacked the rhetoric of cultural relativism to defend policies that end up hurting women. Fights over abortion and contraception worldwide have become what she deems “proxy battles in a much larger international culture war,” in which would-be protectors of the status quo rail against Western libertines imposing their corrupted and corrupting values on traditional cultures.

These kinds of arguments have forced gender equality advocates to walk a fine line. They are trying to expand women’s rights—and, indeed, to legitimize the very concept of individual, as opposed to cultural or group rights—without being denounced as cultural imperialists. They have a particularly difficult task, The Means of Reproduction shows, because the reproductive rights movement got its start when powerful men in American government and industry began worrying a half-century ago about “the population bomb,” the potential for overpopulation to threaten global stability, and, by extension, American dominance. This realpolitik-based fear ended up helping a lot of women who wanted to control their fertility: in the 1960s and ’70s, the United States Agency for International Development was the biggest supplier of condoms and abortion equipment worldwide. The sad result, though, was that other health needs often went completely unmet. People in the developing world may be forgiven if they got the impression America only cared about their welfare insofar as making sure they didn’t have too many babies. In one awful example, President Lyndon Johnson threatened to withhold food aid to a famine-stricken India if the country failed to meet certain population and agricultural production goals. It took several decades for development groups to recognize overpopulation as “a symptom of women’s oppression” that couldn’t be fixed without solving the underlying malady of gender inequality.

Once they did, Goldberg argues, they were remarkably successful. Activists at organizations like the Ford Foundation and International Planned Parenthood enshrined reproductive and gender equality rights in U.N. resolutions and treaties and in the practices and mission statements of NGOs worldwide. In the United States, few judges give much weight to international law, but in other countries, these international declarations carry real weight. Goldberg names a number of laws and court cases that have cited these declarations to affirm women’s right to inherit property, obtain therapeutic abortions, and be protected from sexual harassment and abuse. Despite these successes, she concedes, such international declarations are ultimately unenforceable, and so the fight for gender equality remains what she deems “the world’s largest and most critical human rights struggle.”

Goldberg tells the history and politics of this struggle in great detail. It is, as she says, a largely unknown story. Unfortunately, it’s also a terribly wonky one. The book directs much of its focus to the activists, rather than on the women for whom they are advocating. Even for a dedicated reader, it takes superhuman recall to keep track of all the commissions and committees and conferences—and of the leaders and critics of each (it doesn’t help that Goldberg often mentions various people and organizations off-handedly before she has properly introduced them). The big drama in the book centers around U.N. conferences in the 1990s on population and women’s rights. Goldberg uses lively and muscular prose in an attempt to evoke some suspense, but she is, ultimately, talking about diplomats and policy wonks fighting over semantics. She knows this, acknowledging that the “stultifying, banal patois of the development bureaucracy” has largely obscured the importance of these victories for women’s rights advocates. When she describes one Colombian reproductive rights attorney, a pretty, firecracker NYU law grad as perhaps “the closest thing the world of international reproductive rights has to a superstar,” it feels a little sad. How can a book about “sex, power and the future of the world” be so un-sexy?

Goldberg is not focused on telling a sexy story, though. She wants to find a pro-women’s rights position that doesn’t risk being attacked as culturally insensitive or inauthentic. Thus, she declares in her conclusion that “it is not the role of outsiders, either Western governments or foundations, to dictate new sexual norms to others.” It’s far better, she concludes, for women in the developing world to fight for reform in their own countries. From a purely practical standpoint, these women probably are in a better position to affect change than crusading and self-righteous foreigners. And yet, if gender inequality is, as Goldberg asserts, the “biggest human rights crisis in the world today,”—the cause of routine marital rape, gruesome illegal abortions, forced female genital mutilation, and other “cultural” or “traditional” practices—can women’s rights advocates afford to wait? If, as she argues, women’s rights are essential to the economic and social success of any society, can the world afford to wait? One gets the sense that Goldberg thinks we can’t—and that she is reaching for an argument she doesn’t quite believe.


Kaitlin Bell

Bell is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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