Any veteran of the international development field will be familiar with the disclaimer that no single intervention, no matter how effective, is a “silver bullet.” But in The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World, journalist Michelle Goldberg argues forcefully that there is one change that is key to solving environmental degradation, food insecurity, water scarcity, global health challenges, skewed gender ratios, poverty, and both under- and overpopulation: women’s empowerment.
As Matthew Connelly documents in his book Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, the family-planning movement sometimes lapsed into questionable moral territory during its early years, when women’s rights were not among its chief motivations. Fortunately, it turns out that family planning is actually more successful when motivated by a larger desire to empower women than when spurred by fears of overpopulation (The Means of Reproduction, pp. 74-76; 84-85). Educated women are more likely to delay marriage, have fewer children, obtain good maternal care, and be less vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, write Caren Grown et al. in a literature review of gender equality and women’s health in The Lancet.
A Birth Dearth—or an Empowerment Dearth?
As Goldberg points out, empowering women is also the solution to slowing the rapid population decline being experienced in many European countries and some wealthy Asian ones. “In contemporary developed societies, birthrates are highest where support for working mothers is greatest, a fact conservatives simply ignore in their doomsday surveys of future European decrepitude,” says Goldberg (p. 204).
Thus, comparatively religious, socially conservative European countries like Italy and Poland have some of the lowest fertility rates on the continent (both 1.3 children per woman), while more secular countries like France and Sweden, with their generous paid parental leave policies, public day care, and after-school programs, have some of the highest (2.0 and 1.9, respectively).
Strong Women, Healthy Families
Women’s empowerment is key to human health. The more education a woman has, the healthier her children are likely to be, explains Goldberg (p. 75). In addition, as Grown et al. point out, “in societies such as Bangladesh, where husbands control most household resources, when women did own assets, household expenditure on children’s clothing and education was higher and the rate of illness among girls was reduced.”
But the connection between empowerment and health also works in the other direction: In sub-Saharan Africa, women constitute 57 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS—a direct result of women’s sexual, social, political, and economic subordination (pp. 224-225). Women often do not have the standing to refuse sex, or to demand that a man wear a condom. They also frequently lack the financial and educational resources needed to leave violent or unfaithful husbands (p. 225).
Bare Branches: Sex Ratios and Security
A preference for sons persists in many parts of the world—especially Asia—and the spread of ultrasound, which can detect the sex of a four-month-old fetus, has made sex-selective abortion hugely popular for couples seeking to have a son. But the growing imbalance between men and women has potentially grave security implications for countries such as China and India, warns Goldberg. As Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer point out, Indian states “with high sex ratios, such as Uttar Pradesh, have much higher violent crime rates than states with more normal sex ratios, such as Kerala.”
As Goldberg puts it, “as long as women lack an identity without a husband or a son, sex-selective abortion will continue to deform India’s—and Asia’s—demographics” (p.194). She isn’t hopeful about quick progress: “Like any democracy, India will probably find it easier to slouch toward disaster than to infuriate the defenders of patriarchy. Ultimately, though, unless the country finds a way to break through the encrustations of centuries of misogyny, its democracy itself could be in danger from an unmanageable excess of men” (p. 198).
But she reminds us that the main population-related response to these problems—a commitment to decrease fertility in the developing world—misinterprets the causes. The food shortages were largely the result of growing consumption by middle-income people, combined with continued high consumption in the rich world. Climate change will undoubtedly become much worse if all people in the developing world start to live the high-carbon lifestyles we do in the West, but to date, climate change has been caused almost entirely by industrialized countries.
The Micro and the Macro
Goldberg’s storytelling skills are superb, making The Means of Reproduction both an exciting and enlightening read. She illustrates her broader arguments about women’s rights with compelling stories about individual women and men. She demands that we respect these people’s experiences while arguing powerfully against succumbing to the temptations of political correctness and relativism:
“In thinking about the situation of women in vastly different contexts, there are a number of dangers. One is assuming that Western ways are self-evidently superior and that all women would choose them, if only they could. But another is assuming that women in other cultures are so different from us that situations we would find intolerable—bearing child after child into grinding poverty; being utterly at the mercy of fathers, husbands, and brothers; having one’s clitoris sliced off with a razor—do not also cause them great pain” (p. 9).
Goldberg has pulled off an impressive feat: The Means of Reproduction is accessible enough to serve as an introduction to the debates around population and family planning, but complex enough to inform readers about the latest controversies and battlegrounds in the field. Goldberg does have an opinion, but it’s based on reams of research. Here’s hoping The Means of Reproduction finds a place in the canon.
Photo: Women and children at the health post at Sam Ouandja refugee camp in the Central African Republic. Courtesy of Pierre Holtz/UNICEF and Flickr user hdptcar.