Summary: An outstanding book, broad in its sweep and compelling in its use of fascinating detail, that paints a clear picture of the international forces opposing women’s rights – and what’s at stake in the fight against them.
I’ve said in the past that I believe all feminists should be atheists, the better to deny power and legitimacy to the religious belief systems that have treated women unjustly throughout history. But after reading Michelle Goldberg’s outstanding new book The Means of Reproduction, I’m convinced that the converse is also true: all atheists should be feminists, in recognition of how many of the goals of religious fundamentalists entail the subjugation of women, and how effectively we can defeat them at home and around the world by working to uphold gender equality.
Goldberg’s book examines the state of women’s rights throughout the world and explores how the inevitable clashes with fundamentalist religion and traditionalist culture play out in the lives of millions of women. It’s not, as I had assumed, primarily about the culture wars in the U.S. over abortion – although both abortion and American culture war politics do play a central role. But the legal and cultural equilibrium in this country hasn’t changed much in the past several decades, and as Goldberg brilliantly shows, by far the most consequential impact of America’s shifting political winds isn’t felt at home, but abroad.
The opening chapters of the book offer a historical perspective on this fight by showing how, ironically, the U.S. was once the biggest provider of contraception and abortion services to developing countries worldwide. This happened during the Cold War era, when Malthusian fears of overpopulation were intertwined with concerns over the spread of communism in impoverished countries. The ways that American politicians lined up to combat this seem bizarre to anyone used to today’s ideological battle lines. (One of many great tidbits is that former president George H.W. Bush, when he served in Congress, was so zealous an advocate of contraception that he was nicknamed “Rubbers”.) By fighting overpopulation, politicians hoped to check the spread of Marxism – and so the U.S. in its heyday spent millions of dollars to launch family-planning clinics and distribute birth control pills around the world.
But these programs, in many cases, were victims of their own success. Most of them focused only on preventing births, while doing little or nothing else to help or empower the poor and disenfranchised women who most needed them. As a result, the growing international conservative movement, which took off during the Reagan administration, was able to frame them as Western racism and cultural imperialism – a charge that was not always without merit. Today, the worldwide feminist movement is opposed by a bizarre, but equally transnational, coalition of Christian and Islamic conservatives who join together in defense of patriarchy – often working hand-in-hand at the U.N. even as they denounce each other at home.
Goldberg next traces the origins of the international conservative movement. At the root of this bitter tree stands the Roman Catholic church, which was and is the staunchest opponent of women’s rights in the world – as she points out, even Islamic theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran have a more permissive view of abortion than the Vatican. There are some truly amazing details here: I was startled to learn that a papal commission in the 1960s actually recommended that the Catholic ban on birth control be lifted – but Pope Paul VI overruled his own commission’s advice and issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, reiterating the church’s absolute ban on contraception. Several prominent bishops explained at the time that the pope had to do this, because anything else would have been a tacit admission that the church’s prior beliefs were wrong and that can never be permitted, regardless of the consequences.
But the Catholic church alone was largely ineffective in stemming the tide of women’s rights, until it was joined by conservative Christians from other denominations. Goldberg argues that, contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t Roe v. Wade that galvanized Protestant evangelicals into entering politics, but the rise of the feminist movement that threatened traditional notions of the patriarchal family and the subservient wife. This reactionary movement, which began mostly in America, has been exported abroad in recent decades. The effects can be seen in Latin American countries like El Salvador, where pro-life groups have triumphed. In these countries, women who come to the hospital hemorrhaging from a miscarriage are handcuffed to their hospital beds until they can be examined by forensic vagina inspectors, to ensure they didn’t obtain an illegal abortion; other women die horribly from ruptured Fallopian tubes because their country’s laws don’t permit abortion even in the case of an ectopic pregnancy.
However, not all anti-woman practices come from religion. In Africa, we learn of a few incredibly brave activists fighting the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation, a tribal custom which predates Islam but has been perpetuated by many Islamic societies. In even the mildest versions of FGM, the woman’s clitoris is sliced off with crude instruments like scissors or razors, without anesthetic. (This is the practice that Ayaan Hirsi Ali was subjected to as a child.) But there are even more extreme versions, such as infibulation, in which the woman’s clitoris is cut off and her vagina is sewn shut, leaving only a tiny hole to urinate – on her wedding night, her husband must literally rip her open. Bizarrely, this practice is still defended by some women – even well-educated, cosmopolitan women – who argue that it’s an ineradicable part of their culture and a necessary step of womanhood.
As the FGM controversy shows, feminist issues don’t always play out along familiar ideological lines. In India, Goldberg discusses the rampant practice of sex-selective abortion, which has led to dramatically skewed sex ratios – in some areas, as imbalanced as 700 women to every 1000 men. The resulting demand for wives not only encourages human trafficking and sexual slavery, but poses a threat to societal stability from the millions of angry, frustrated, unmarriageable young men.
Yet India is a clear example of the principle Goldberg repeatedly returns to: the root problem isn’t the availability of birth control, but the need for female emancipation. She describes how India’s growing wealth has encouraged an explosion of ever-more exorbitant demands for dowry, making daughters more and more of a financial drain on their families and increasing the pressure to have sons. Shockingly, in some places, dowry has become not just a one-time payment but a steady stream of demands from the groom’s family – and if the woman’s parents refuse to pay, their daughter may be beaten or murdered by her own husband and in-laws. The depth of the problem is summed up in a local saying she quotes: “Having a daughter is like watering your neighbor’s garden.”
But despite all the horrible sexism that Goldberg chronicles, all the discrimination and oppression she details, her conclusions are not wholly pessimistic. The cause of women’s rights is advancing, albeit frustratingly slowly and haltingly, but advancing nevertheless.
One of her arguments that came as a revelation to me is that the United Nations does a lot more good than most people are aware of. Its treaties and resolutions on the rights of women, so often disparaged as powerless symbolism, have had major, concrete effects in reforming the legal systems of many countries and establishing reproductive choice as a human right before national and international judicial bodies.
Second, as I mentioned earlier, Goldberg argues convincingly that the greatest effects of American politics are felt abroad rather than at home. Abortion politics in the U.S. have settled into an uneasy but stable equilibrium, one that changes little regardless of which party is in power. But in the developing world, it makes a huge difference whether and to whom the U.S. provides aid. The most infamous example is the “global gag rule”, which forbids family planning groups that receive any federal aid from providing, or even acknowledging the existence of, abortion. This rule, which has been repeatedly canceled by Democratic presidents and reinstated by Republican presidents, makes all the difference in developing countries whose only source of family planning aid is the U.S. When in effect, it’s forced the closure of countless clinics that provide not just contraception or abortion, but also prenatal care, checkups, vaccinations, and other help for new mothers and families.
There’s even more in this book that I haven’t mentioned, but I’ve written enough to support the conclusions from my opening words. Goldberg makes a clear and compelling case that all the evils she mentions, all the battles that feminist groups are fighting, all of this stems from the same source: the refusal to recognize women as full human beings with equal rights, including autonomy over their own bodies and the right to decide for themselves when and whether to have children. This pervasive sexism is still entrenched throughout the world, and although religion isn’t solely to blame for this, it has always been the strongest and most enduring friend to patriarchy. Only when its malignant influence is defeated will women truly be free. And conversely, by freeing women, we take one of the most effective steps to roll back religion’s power and influence.