On April 15 at 5:30pm, author Michelle Goldberg will be at the Wallkill River School in Montgomery, to read from and discuss her latest book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World (Penguin Books, 2009). Goldberg, an award-winning journalist and the New York Times-bestselling author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (Norton, 2006), now reveals the complex interplay among women’s reproductive rights or lack thereof and key global issues. In early chapters she describes attempts over the last several decades by interested parties in developed nations to curb exponential population growth in the developing world by targeting women’s wombs, and the steps taken to oppose that by fundamentalist religious groups and the Vatican. Later chapters recount the realities women face in individual countries or cultures today, including serious health challenges and high mortality associated with pregnancy and birth, rampant HIV infection among faithful married women in Africa, genital cutting of millions of girls as a rite of passage and marriage requirement, abortion laws intolerant of exception, arranged marriages and forced pregnancies at a young age in lieu of schooling, and even the problem of international aid meant to improve women’s situations causing unexpected outcomes and backlash. First-person accounts and scores of referenced documents create a stunning, and disturbing, picture of reproductive constraints placed on women around the globe, and build the case that diverse societal woes will not improve until women’s human rights, including those of reproductive freedom, are taken seriously.
I spoke with Goldberg by phone in anticipation of her visit to the Hudson Valley; the following are excerpts from our conversation.
Regarding women’s health issues specifically, what do you consider a top global concern?
Maternal mortality is a big problem. There is no excuse for how little progress we’ve made on maternal mortality globally. There are some countries in sub-Saharan Africa where women have a one-in-five chance or a one-in-six chance of dying during pregnancy, whereas in other more developed countries in the region it’s about one in 23. What’s most disturbing about this maternal mortality crisis is how much it is about politics. There are certainly questions of poverty and resources, but there are also deep political and cultural systems of oppression behind all of these unnecessary deaths. It’s about the devaluation of women throughout their lives.
It starts with the fact that girls are pulled out of school and married off at young ages—12 or 13—and have no say about their sex lives or about using family planning. These young girls, whose bodies are not developed enough for successful deliveries, are giving birth without medical help. Many develop fistula, a tragic endemic condition where the vagina and urethra are torn during delivery, and the girls end up leaking urine and feces all the time, so they are banished from their villages or put in a hut by themselves at the edge of the village. There is also the problem of these girls giving birth to several children very closely spaced together, without time to recover. That’s why, in Ethiopia for instance, you’ll often see women lining up at makeshift clinics for Provera shots [a birth control drug], because their husbands won’t know about the shots.
Another huge contributor to maternal mortality—the second-biggest in some countries—is botched abortions. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, there are high rates of illegal abortions, showing women’s desperation to control their fertility and the system’s failure to help them. Almost everywhere in these regions, abortion is illegal. This cause of mortality could be effectively tackled by changing the law. But abortion laws are getting more restrictive, in concert with the ascendancy of the right wing within governments that are ostensibly west leaning. Just recently, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic passed laws making abortion illegal for any reason, including risk to the health of the mother.
AIDS, which is another global issue you address, has increasingly become a dire situation in ways we might not have foreseen.
Yes, the AIDS pandemic is a major problem that can’t be tackled without women’s rights. In some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, young females are three times more likely than young males to be infected. Part of that is biological—female tissues are more readily injured during intercourse, making virus entry easier. But a huge part of the high incidence in girls is culture and power. A girl doesn’t have the authority to decide when and with whom she has sex, who she’s going to marry, or to demand that her husband be faithful or use a condom. In many places, studies show that the greatest risk factor for women in getting AIDS is being married. I’ve talked to a number of women who were abstinent before they married, and were faithful to their husbands, and now have AIDS. That’s why the conservative policies of abstinence and fidelity are such a cruel joke.