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.