Back Talk: Michelle Goldberg

Back Talk: Michelle Goldberg

Journalist Michelle Goldberg discusses the past fifty years of global reproductive issues.


Michelle Goldberg is a freelance journalist whose newest book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World (Penguin Press, $25.95), explores the past fifty years of global reproductive issues. —Christine Smallwood

What is the story you’re telling in this book?

The broad sweep of the story starts in the 1950s and 1960s, when there was a cold war panic about overpopulation. There were these almost Strangelove-ian military planners freaking out that overpopulation would make Third World countries so immiserated that they would go communist. You know, George H.W. Bush used to be known as Rubbers because he was so obsessed with contraception. And then there was almost a complete switch. Part of the story is about the rise of the religious right and the rise of the feminist movement. Politicians couldn’t concede that much [to the right] in the United States because of Roe v. Wade, but they could do its bidding on the global stage. I also try to show how this dynamic is now rebounding all over the world. Some of the same players and same ideas and organizations intersect in totally different ways in Nicaragua, India or Kenya.

Why are the interests of women marginalized in such debates?

People will support women’s reproductive rights when there’s another end goal. People were very supportive of family planning when it was about national security. One of the sad ironies is that you had these amazing women who took over and did redirect these institutions to focus on choice and reproductive rights, but that’s when the world lost interest. Women’s rights are the answer to so many global problems. But people will try everything else first.

America has been influential in controlling access to such rights.

The United States really initiated all these programs. One story I think is fascinating is about how the United States contracted with this rogue illegal abortionist in California to manufacture a kind of safe, hand-held manual abortion device that we then shipped round the world by tens of thousands. The United States also was the guiding force behind the creation of the United Nations Population Fund [UNFPA], which is ironic because we’ve been trying to destroy UNFPA for the past eight years. Even during the last Bush administration we were still the largest distributor of contraceptives in the world; it was just that there were certain countries that weren’t getting them at all because the agencies that were barred from distributing them under the global gag rule were the only ones that were working in these countries, like Yemen.

Will women in the developed world have more children if they have more support from the state?

I started the book thinking that the freakout over the birth dearth in Europe was overblown. But there’s a real problem. These kinds of birthrates are not sustainable. Or they’re not sustainable if you want to maintain European social democracy and pensions. If Italy’s birthrate remains the same, in 100 years it will have 14 percent of the population it has now. You can supplement a lot of that with immigration-and I’m really pro-immigration-but once you get such high levels of immigration, you’re just begging for nationalist backlashes, and…it’s just not sustainable. You can raise the birthrate by introducing a regime of reproductive totalitarianism, or you can introduce a regime of comprehensive daycare, parental leave and such. Once societies attain a certain level of development, women are going to demand to work. In societies that make that support impossible, women are not having children. There’s an absolute direct correlation between how supportive a society is of working mothers and the national birthrate. The United States is a special case for all kinds of odd reasons. This is something that feminists on the left haven’t particularly wanted to talk about because it’s tricky-Oh no, how come white people aren’t having enough children? But actually the facts are on the side of people who are advocating for a bigger welfare state and more sexually equitable societies.

What of the tensions between feminism and multiculturalism?

I see feminism as being really bound up and inextricable from modernity. It is a threat to traditional cultures. And I don’t think that Western women can go into such a culture and say, Sorry, you can’t live like this anymore. But there are women already trying to do that work, and they’re isolated and they need help. An example would be Agnes Pareyio, who is a Masai woman fighting female genital mutilation in Kenya, which is very controversial. She had undergone circumcision even though she hadn’t wanted to, and as she got older she came to really regret it and started agitating against the practice, going by foot to different villages in her own community, and soon girls started running away. The idea of being in a really remote village in Kenya, and hearing a rumor that this person exists out there, and packing up your little knapsack and sneaking away in the middle of the night and going through the bush-it just blew me away. It was like this virus. They started going by the hundreds. No outsider can go in there and say, Run away from your family! But Agnes was helped by the fact that Western governments pressured Kenya to make female genital mutilation -illegal, which means that these parents can’t call the police to have her charged with kidnapping. So she’s protected by this global system.

What of sex-selective abortion in a traditional culture?

Sex-selective abortion is a real problem. Feminists in India who are horrified by what’s going on, their language is very foreign to the American feminist movement, because it’s not about choice; it’s about rights. Gita Sen said that sometimes a woman’s choice to have a sex-selective abortion reflects the fact that she has very few rights. Because of the importance of dowry, having a girl is a huge financial liability. Traditions make it rational for a woman to want a son. You have certain women who are carrying a female fetus and are coerced into having an abortion, but there are others who go out and get one because it’s important to their status; it’s important to their role.

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