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Who Controls The Means Of Reproduction?


The issue of overpopulation is said to be a disaster in slow motion for our global environment. On this Earth Day, we'll take a different approach to this complex problem. The answer may lie in empowering women to take control of their lives and their bodies. We'll hear from the author of the new book, "The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World."

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Today is the 40th annual observance of Earth Day, and every Earth Day people talk a lot about things like alternative energy, the effects of climate change and efforts to clean up the air and the oceans. But one huge environmental problem that's seldom ever mentioned is overpopulation. The skyrocketing global population is putting a huge amount of stress on our planet, with no relief in sight. And, ironically, the answer to the problem could be quite simple: allowing women education, opportunity and a chance to control their own reproduction. As it turns out, patriarchy is bad for the environment. I'd like to introduce Michelle Goldberg, investigative journalist, former senior writer at and author of the new book, “The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World.” Michelle, welcome to These Days.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG (Author): Hi. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: We’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think the issue of overpopulation should be talked about as an environmental concern? How do you think women’s rights factor into the global environment? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Michelle, the idea of controlling population has a long and somewhat unsavory history from the 1960s and ‘70s. Tell us about the methods various nations used and where they went wrong.

GOLDBERG: Well, basically in the – starting in the 1950s and then going into the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a huge amount of concern and maybe even hysteria about overpopulation. I mean, people were predicting mass starvation, huge die-offs, Malthusian disasters. It was, you know, kind of very mainstream to think that the world was heading toward some kind of apocalypse. And, in fact, a lot of cold warriors believed that overpopulation was going to cause so much misery in the developing world that it was going to lead to communist revolution, which is why there was, at one point, a huge amount of kind of bipartisan establishment support for programs to bring contraception to the developing world. You know, one of the things that I find so interesting about this history is that there was a congressman from Texas who was so passionate about family planning, so devoted to it that they used to nick – that they nicknamed him, excuse me, that they nicknamed him ‘Rubbers,’ and this is George H.W. Bush.


GOLDBERG: So, you know, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were co-chairmen of Planned Parenthood. But the problem with this, not only did it overstate the – you know, not only did it overstate the problems, these disasters didn’t come to pass. Part of the reason they didn’t come to pass is because there was all of this action to prevent them, not just in terms of family planning but also in terms of, you know, expanded agricultural production, and the green revolution in India. That said, the problems were still kind of overstated. When they didn’t come to pass, everybody said, oh, overpopulation, there’s no such thing as overpopulation. And – but probably – but more importantly is that when you treat women as kind of a means to a preferred demographic destiny, when you act as if what’s really important is kind of raw numbers as opposed to women’s lives, that invites all sorts of abuses. The most egregious abuses, the United States wasn’t really involved in. That was India during the emergency when they had, during the 1970s, when there was these, you know, mass forced vasectomy camps, you know, people being sterilized by the thousands against their will. And then after that, China with the one child policy and all of the abuses that’s entailed. Where the United States is involved in this is in lesser abuses but still instances that are kind of borderline coercive, you know, offering a poor family a free transistor radio or a new sari or some other kind of incentive if you would undergo sterilization, or pushing kind of nonreversible methods of contraception that took, you know, the power out of women’s own hands.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Was there any effort in giving women more power in reproductive decision making? Did that factor into any of these grand ideas to curb overpopulation?

GOLDBERG: No, for a long time it didn’t. And then what happened was there was a group of women who kind of came of age within these big population organizations. You know, it kind of – there was this huge infrastructure of think tanks, of government agencies, there was the population office at USAID, there was an office within the United Nations. And women who kind of came up through these organizations realized that the men in charge, some of whom were very well meaning, just weren’t paying a lot of attention to the realities of women’s lives and to what their needs were and to the fact that their needs – that they had needs that wasn’t – I mean, that family planning was important but it wasn’t the only aspect of women’s kind of reproductive health needs. And so they really tried to take these organizations over from within and change the paradigm to one that was not about stopping overpopulation but about addressing women’s fundamental rights to control their own bodies, kind of to addressing the dehumanization of women and, you know, the maternal health crisis and the crisis of women’s health all around the world. And what they understood and what’s really well understood today is that if you do all those things, you know, women don’t want to be having eight children that they can’t take care of. Women don’t want to be pregnant every 10 months or every 18 months. You take care of kind of women’s fundamental needs and these other second order problems really have a way of resolving themselves.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Michelle Goldberg and she is the author of the new book, “The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World.” And we’re taking your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call now. Patricia is calling us from San Diego. Patricia, welcome to These Days.

PATRICIA (Caller, San Diego): Hi.


PATRICIA: How are you doing?

CAVANAUGH: Great, thank you.

PATRICIA: Yes, I just wanted to comment. We were just talking about the same subject in my English class and my teacher quoted Isaac Asimov, a well known author, as saying that if women don’t see childbirth as a means of gaining their self esteem then that will curb the overpopulation problem. And I just think that’s a really true thing that just kind of rang true to me.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. Thank you so much for this phone call. And I want to add to that, if I may, because I know that you make the case in the book that we actually do have a pretty good idea of what actually does stabilize population growth.

GOLDBERG: Right, and the other thing I should add is that there’s something a little bit tricky about talking about overpopulation and the connection between overpopulation and environmental destruction because although there are – there certainly are connections, it’s important to realize that, you know, global warming is not being caused by poor people in the third world, as by, you know, overpopulation in the third world as much as it’s being caused by overconsumption in the first world. And so, you know, we can’t simply say to people in poor countries you need to stop having so many children so that, you know, you can kind of turn back the clock on all of these environmental catastrophes that we’ve really set in motion. That said, rapidly expanding populations in poor countries are putting so much strain on resources that are already being taxed by the effects of environmental catastrophes. You know, we’re already seeing water shortages, we’re seeing all kinds of problems with weather patterns and resulting, you know, problems with the harvests and with agriculture and food shortages and food riots, and actually some of the disasters that were predicted by the Malthusians in the sixties and seventies. And the kind of rapid, unsustainable growth in population is making it harder to deal with those disasters. But you’re right. We know how to deal with these problems. And, you know, the problems of, you know, very high population growth rates are also intimately related to problems in, you know, in women’s health. The reason that maternal mortality, for example, remains so high even though real progress is being made on it, is that women who are – or, girls really, who are married off at 12 or 13 who start their childbearing very early on and have no say about it are, you know, having children before their bodies are really able to accommodate childbirth are having their children spaced very close together and don’t have time to recover in between these births. And it just – that’s the reason that you have so many of these other, you know, health disasters that afflict women in the developing world.

CAVANAUGH: In your book, Michelle, “The Means of Reproduction,” you outline some of the ways that women around the world, even today, have virtually no control over sex or childbearing. I think you just gave us an example where women, or actually girls, who are – become pregnant and then have one child after another after another, give us some more examples of how, you know, perhaps it would be surprising for people in the western world to realize that, you know, women don’t have certain rights to control their own reproduction.

GOLDBERG: Well, you know, one of the things that was so frustrating during the Bush years about the emphasis on abstinence only to fight HIV was the fact that not only in many countries where HIV is really a pandemic, marriage is actually a major risk factor for women getting infected with HIV. I mean, telling a woman who is either married – either pulled out of school and married off by her parents or in some cases—and this is quite common in many developing countries—kind of marriage by kidnapping or marriage by rape where basically, you know, a man kind of rapes a woman and then restores her honor by marrying her or else makes her unmarriageable, you know, which kind of forces her into his arms. I mean, I remember interviewing a woman in Uganda who had been, you know, she was living with a man who had, you know, raped her when she was very young and, you know, she was then driven out of her parents’ house and ended up basically becoming his kind of common law wife. She told me, you know, she had, I think, she was raising 8 child – or she was raising 10 children at the time that I met her, although some of them were orphans, were orphans after her sister died of HIV AIDS. She didn’t – she’d never heard of family planning. She certainly had no access to it. She had no right – she had no legal right, actually, to refuse sex. Not long ago, there was an effort to make marital rape illegal in Uganda and there was a huge uproar and a male legislator actually said something like the most violent thing a spouse can do is refuse sex to her husband. And they were unable to do this, you know, they were unable to make this illegal. So, you know, refusing to submit to sex with your HIV positive spouse is just not an option. So she was, you know, she gave birth to one child after another. Not until very late in her life, I think it was only her last two pregnancies, did she even know about medication that you can take to prevent mother-to-child transmission. You know, now she’s alone in the world, taking care of 10 children in her own declining health. And this is really a political catastrophe as much as it is a medical catastrophe.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Michelle Goldberg about her new book, “The Means of Reproduction.” Taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Victoria’s calling us from Pacific Beach. And good morning, Victoria, welcome to These Days.

VICTORIA (Caller, Pacific Beach): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. I guess in face of the bigger – the very big topic that your guest is talking about maybe my call is a little less important but I just wanted to maybe put out there my frustration as to our baby culture. And as a 30-year-old woman who has been married for five years with my partner, I’ve been with him for 10 years, and the pressure that I feel from all kinds of sources, from family to friends to, you know, our tax guy, who asked us just now when we are going to have a kid because we’re getting old, it just really feels so frustrating and I think that it – A problem is a lot of women do fall, you know, succumb to this pressure and I guess that doesn’t help at all the situation. Regardless of how much education we have and how much access to birth control we have, you know, if we have this societal pressure to have kids, a lot of us wind up having kids when we’re not so prepared to.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for your phone call, Victoria. And I know you’re not making the case in this book that everything’s just hunky-dory in the United States and in Western Europe as well.

GOLDBERG: No, it’s not, although the situation here is actually a – is quite a bit more complicated and particularly in Western Europe, it’s quite a bit more complicated. Now I would certainly never argue that somebody shouldn’t have children because of its environmental impacts. I mean, what I’m arguing is that when you kind of give women the support that they need, you know, social and economic, to make the choices that are right for them, a lot of other things fall into place and that includes both having children and not having children. I mean, something that you see in Western Europe, or not just Western Europe, something that you see throughout Europe, is rapidly declining birthrates, declining so quickly that it’s going to create some economic difficulties for some of these countries. You’re going to have very small numbers of working adults supporting a kind of massively growing number of retirees and it, you know, calls some of the foundations of the welfare state into question. And you might think, you know, what does that have to do with overpopulation or with, you know, the denial of contraception and denial of safe abortion in the developing world and the answer is, is that you find in many countries, and particularly in very conservative or formerly conservative Catholic countries or countries that are still kind of predominantly socially conservative like Poland, like Spain, like Italy, these are the countries that have very, very low birthrates, you know, 1.3 children per couple, 1.4 children per couple, have birthrates actually lower than what women are saying they want. And the reason is, is because these countries are not providing women the kind of support that they need to combine work and family, which is something that not all women but something that many women, and I would say maybe most women, aspire to do. So the countries that aren’t have – that have kind of much more stable ratios, the countries that aren’t going to face this crisis of declining workforces are countries like Sweden, you know, France, Norway, Demark. Countries that, again, make women’s choices possible find themselves in a state of equilibrium. And, to me, this is so fascinating and also kind of heartening, you know, that it turns out that women’s rights and supporting women’s choices is the answer to overpopulation and to underpopulation, to put it very simply. It’s the answer to population rates that are growing too quickly to sustain and to population rates that are shrinking in an unsustainable way.

CAVANAUGH: Population stabilization is…


CAVANAUGH: … what you’re talking about, yeah.

GOLDBERG: I think that when you take care of – Again, when you take care of women and when you give them the choices that they need, a lot of other things fall into place.

CAVANAUGH: One of the points that you make in the book is that even though the idea of women not having the power that they need to control their bodies, to get education, to get opportunity to make reproductive decisions, is so endemic in so many cultures around the world it still seems like an afterthought in much of our foreign policy, and why is that?

GOLDBERG: Well, I think because people think that the main issues of foreign policy are, you know, the big, serious things like war and peace and poverty and development, and women’s issues are always treated as this kind of trivial adjunct, you know, at least kind of lifestyle issues, as these kind of soft issues. And what I think is increasingly becoming clear, you know, not just to me but to, say, you know, the CIA or to the Secretary of State, you know, Hillary Clinton is someone who understands this very, very well, is that women’s rights are actually – You’re not going to make any progress on stability, you’re not going to make any progress on economic development if you don’t take women’s rights seriously. You know, the wholesale devaluation of women is at the root of so many of these other problems that trouble, you know, both our consciences and our national security.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Prima is calling from La Jolla, and, Prima, welcome to These Days.

PRIMA (Caller, La Jolla): Hi. I was really impressed with the author of – about – regarding reproduction in the third world. She seems to be really sensitive to the third world problems. Having – being personally from India and having worked in very poor Indian villages, I really empathize with the book and what the author talks about. I have this question, having worked in the third world and having worked among Muslim women and Hindu women in India, I realize that in Hindu women, because of the religious concentrations, are more open to family planning as compared to Muslim women. They seem – the Hindu women are more open to it but the Muslim women are the ones who are suffering the most because of, you know, repeated childbirth and they have these strong pressures from their husbands and their culture where family planning is supposed to be a religious taboo. So how would you deal with such a situation and especially in Muslim countries?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

GOLDBERG: I mean, you know, I think the answer lies with people who are working within Muslim countries very successfully. I mean, you know, outsiders can have a role in supporting activists and supporting healthcare providers within these countries but the real change always comes from within. And so I know that women have been very effective in Bangladesh in connecting family planning and connecting safe abortion to kind of broader programs of empowerment that really work within the community. I mean, for example, you know, most famously there’s the Grameen Bank, the famous microcredit organization within Bangladesh and the founder of that won the Nobel Prize. You know, the women there are accountable to each other for economic investment and, you know, economic growth but they also make a pledge to keep their families small. Being involved in these organizations gives them access to family planning and I’m not sure it’s so much a religious taboo as it is a cultural taboo. I mean, Islam is actually – You know, Islam is actually more permissive than, say, Catholicism on a lot of issues of family planning and reproductive choice. I mean, you can get the morning after pill in Saudi Arabia or in Iran. So this isn’t so much a religious issue as it is a cultural issue and an issue of patriarchy. And men, it seems, are more likely to kind of accommodate themselves to changing norms when they see that it benefits them and so even though they might be really uncomfortable at first and might be really hostile and, you know, are, you know, burning down clinics or terrorizing clinics or terrorizing healthcare workers, when they see their own income and their own family’s income rise because they have smaller families and women who are working, the evidence shows they tend to accommodate themselves to it.

CAVANAUGH: It’s important to note that there are many societies that agree to education and opportunities for women. You could even say that our society is one of them. But the whole issue of reproductive rights is still viewed as something that’s just not for women to decide. So how do you counter that kind of an attitude?

GOLDBERG: I think it’s different in different societies how you counter it. I mean, in the United States where we have such a strong tradition and such a strong commitment to individual liberty, it’s basically – it’s always astonishing to me that people who think that, you know, the income tax is a form of theft or, you know, talk about object to healthcare reform on the grounds of how can the government interfere with the decisions I make over my own health? Then turn around and mandate forced pregnancy, you know, mandate the most intrusive government restrictions imaginable onto the decisions that a woman makes about her own health. You know, we would never – we could – it would be unimaginable to us to, say, mandate that somebody submit to a kidney transplant even to save someone else’s life. We would consider that totalitarian. But people think nothing of mandating, you know, this kind of – of mandating pregnancy, of saying that a woman has to go through this, you know, very difficult and sometimes very dangerous physical process whether she likes it or not.

CAVANAUGH: Now as I – I started this off by saying that the issue of global population is sort of a disaster in slow motion. And you’ve made it very clear that when it comes to women and deciding their reproductive rights, you’re not necessarily for them having children or not having children but it is, you know, there are projected that the amount of people in the world is increasing rapidly.

GOLDBERG: Yes, and there are projections – you know, the UN has different projections, I think on the low end is almost 9 billion, on the high end is over 10 billion by 2050. And that’s – there’s a big difference. I mean, you know, a billion-plus people. There’s a big difference between our many possible futures. And I guess the good news is that we don’t have to – we don’t – there – you don’t have to make a choice between kind of what women want and what’s good for the planet because when you give women both opportunities to kind of have a place in the world beyond simply being a mother, when you give them education, opportunities to earn money and opportunities to control their own fertility, they want fewer – they almost never – I mean, individuals aside, most people want smaller, healthier families that they can take care of.

CAVANAUGH: Michelle, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I’ve been speaking with Michelle Goldberg. She is the author of the new book, book “The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World.” Some people on the line we couldn’t get to, please do go online, Post your comments there. And thank you so much. Thank you, Michelle.

GOLDBERG: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for listening. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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