Our Bodies, Our World
The fight for reproductive righs extend far beyond America’s shores.
On the third day of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Senator Tom Coburn asked, “Do you believe that the court’s abortion rulings have ended the national controversy over this issue?” Sotomayor was curt: “No.” Coburn went further: “You don’t have to name them, but do you think there are other similarly divisive issues that could be decided by the court in the future?” A measured Sotomayor again declined to get specific. “That, I can’t answer,” she said. “I can only answer what exists. People are very passionate about the issues they believe in.”
From the May assassination of Dr. George Tiller, a provider of therapeutic and late-term abortions in Kansas, to the first of what may be a string of Supreme Court vacancies, reproductive rights have returned to the American political spotlight. The exchange on the Senate Judiciary Committee was one of several involving abortion law during the confirmation hearing, highlighting a still-violatile domestic political debate surrounding how and under what circumstances women reproduce.
Yet according to Michelle Goldberg, nearly the entire conversation about sex, access to contraception, and abortion in America is a shibboleth. The 150 million women of the United States enjoy some of the greatest reproductive freedoms on the planet. Eighty percent of the world allows abortion in only the first 12 weeks of pregnancy; the United States permits therapeutic abortions until the sixth month. Three quarters of American women use modern birth control to plan their families, while in many countries birth control is inaccessible, if not illegal. Women abroad suffer under restrictions on their reproductive choices, including cultural stigma against condom use.
Ironically, Goldberg points out in The Means of Reproduction, it is the United States that exercises extraordinary and often restrictive control over the rest of the world’s ability to promote women’s health and family planning–not least because it is the largest funder of family planning programs worldwide. The current administration will give $545 million this year for such efforts to the United Nations Population Fund (also known by its French acronym, UNFP) and other international bodies. Indeed, while dramatic, the dispute between Coburn and Sotomayor over the threatened but consistent protections of Roe vs. Wade obscures a 30-year proxy war that’s produced catastrophic outcomes for women outside the United States.
Religion has played a particularly destructive role. Goldberg, a journalist who has written on feminism and religion, unpacks the workings of a new alliance between religious conservatives around the world that aims to shred reproductive freedoms for women. American Protestants and Latin American Catholics join with the Mormon church, and Iranian clerics join with the Holy See, to prosecute a moral crusade for chastity, one that, in the age of international law and globalized culture, has become a high-stakes geopolitical fencing match.
“The globalization of the culture wars,” writes Goldberg, “was revealing something important about the significant fissures dividing the world. Religious rivalries…masked an equally important polarization, both inside of countries and among them, between secular, liberalizing cultures and traditional, patriarchal ones.” The longstanding conflict over women’s bodies, she concludes, shows this particular clash of civilizations in high relief. And unlike traditional conceptions of grand strategy, it has never been a fight between East and West, left and right, or rich and poor. Instead, it is “a battle between a cosmopolitan network of reproductive rights activists and an equally cosmopolitan network of religious conservatives.”
Goldberg reports from the front lines of this genteel but deadly conflict, describing sex and fertility as pressure points critical to reshaping the global conversation on not just women’s rights but the entire global economy. Allowing women access to reproductive choices, she asserts, is central to the cause of international development: “Underlying diverse conflicts–over demography, natural resources, human rights, and religious mores–is the question of who controls the means of reproduction.”
In this ongoing battle, there is no disputing that the liberals landed the first punch. In the 1950s and 1960s, men like Harvey Kalman, an inventor and early abortionist, and Reimert Ravenholt, who took over USAID’s Office of Population in 1965, saw the problem of unwanted pregnancies in developing nations as a severe threat to women’s and public health. They developed some of the earliest modern abortion technologies and–with the other colorful characters in this drama, such as Adrienne Germain, Joan Dunlop, and Sandra Kabir–laid the groundwork for real change in women’s lives. Their adventures were often straight out of a Western: Maverick American activists and doctors rocketed from Bangladesh to Egypt, their briefcases crammed with birth control pills, condoms, and manual vacuum aspiration kits. As the century progressed, these liberal pioneers pushed for the creation of the UNFP, which launched in 1969, and spearheaded the first World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975–ensuring the spread of safer abortion services, prenatal counseling, and maternal education.
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