After extensive research, writer and journalism professor Michelle Goldberg has come to a big conclusion: The world's most pressing problems can only be solved when women are finally given the freedom to determine their own fate.
The sheer mass of information contained in her new book, The Means of Reproduction (The Penguin Press, 259 pages, $25.95), is stunning, but the real power is in her message—that the global battle for reproductive rights will continue to shape the world. She analyses the international forces that aim to influence women's rights, and their complex linkages with global, political, and economic issues.
The book follows the evolution of the women's reproductive rights struggle throughout the last half century both in America and abroad (it turns out that in 1969 the U.S. was largely responsible for the creation of the United Nations Population Fund, which bankrolled international family planning programs that sought to keep populations of would-be communists in check).
The author also discusses the gap between Western sexual values and the rest of the world's, focusing on female genital mutilation and Asia's dangerously disproportionate ratio of the sexes, due to its cultural preference for male children. It's been argued that these are traditions Westerners have no right destroy. Goldberg answers that mutilation of young women and infanticide are human rights violations. "To act as if only the static and rigid parts of a culture are genuine," she writes, "to treat their societies as less capable of dynamism and progress than we in the West believe ourselves to be, is deeply condescending to the women all around the world who are trying to effect change from within."
The book's greatest impact on Americans largely insulated from the struggle for global women's rights is the discussion of the evangelical Christian movement in the U.S., and its use of the abortion issue as a rallying cry. This is a segment of society that Goldberg wrote about in her last book, Kingdom Coming.
One of George W. Bush's first presidential acts was to reinstate the "global gag rule" created by Reagan in 1984, preventing USAID funds from going to programs that perform abortions, advocate for them, or refer patients to safe abortion options. The result has been a worldwide shortage of contraception methods and the closure of clinics in many countries where women have no other option for reproductive health. Obama has repealed it, as Clinton did, setting the tone for this administration's approach to women's rights.
Obama's decision bodes well, but I agree with Goldberg's closing comment that women can't rely on governments and treaties to give them what they are owed. We've still got to fight.
Michelle Goldberg reads at Powell's Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, on Sunday, April 26. 7:30 pm. Free.