For those of us who both want to increase people’s freedom
to limit their family size and save the planet from catastrophic climate
recent report from the London School of Economics indicating that condom
distribution is five times more cost
effective than green technologies in reducing carbon emissions seems like
unalloyed good news. More freedom,
cleaner world—simple, right? But
if you have even the barest understanding of the history of arguments involving
population control, suddenly it’s not so simple anymore.
It’s easy enough to assume that the Obama administration and
the Sierra Club are
shying away from the issue because reproductive rights are such an
explosive topic, and even touching it brings a hail of crazy from the anti-sex
nuts down on your head. Anti-sex
forces have been influential in creating havoc on the health care reform
debate. If attempts to fight back
against global warming were slowed because the anti-sex brigade got it into
their head that money being spent on global warming was allowing someone,
somewhere to have fun, that would be tragic. But I can honestly say that I don’t think it’s the fear of
the Anti-Sex Mafia that causes this sort of allergy. It’s the history of the fear of overpopulation being used as
an excuse to coerce childbirth choices, and the fact that as soon as the
potential for coercion is introduced, you suddenly attract a sea of racists who
love to pontificate about eugenics all day, and would love to be able to
influence policy to reduce the number of non-white people in relation to the
number of white people.
Overpopulation scares from the past had a distinctly racist
overtone, and unfortunately birth control advocates have not been above
race-baiting in order to garner more support for birth control initiatives, a
habit that goes all the way back to Margaret Sanger, whose ardor for her cause
of voluntary birth control led her to make stupid choices like making a speech
to the KKK’s ladies auxiliary, and to employ eugenics arguments aimed at
audiences amendable to those arguments.
She also employed arguments that are more in line with the freedom and
equality values we espouse today—birth control for women’s health, birth
control for women’s freedom and equality, birth control so poor families can
save more money—but her racist arguments left a stain.
And while the Holocaust led many Americans to see the
connections and disavow eugenics talk, unfortunately that wasn’t the end of
attempts by racists to force women of color to have fewer children than they
want. State-sanctioned sterilization
for decades, and the problem of doctors singling out poor women and women
of color for compulsory sterilization when they come into the hospital to
deliver babies continues to this day.
We even have a
sitting Senator who was accused of sterilizing a woman against her will. Perhaps people who are familiar with
Senator Coburn’s severe anti-sex, anti-choice views will be surprised, but most
pro-choicers shouldn’t be. For
antis, it’s always been about control and making sure the “right” people have
more children while the “wrong” people have fewer.
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Currently, the organized movement against immigration is not
afraid whatsoever to use environmental and population control arguments as a
cover for their racist hostility.
Witness John Gibson freaking out about the
growing proportion of Hispanics to whites, and openly engaging in eugenics
rhetoric about how white women need to have more babies. This kind of race-baiting and
fear-mongering is far from over.
So when someone
starts talking about condom distribution as a means to reduce population and
environmental damage, liberals understandably remember all this history and
decide they don’t want to step on that slippery slope.
This is frustrating all around, because the London School’s
suggestions were framed completely in terms of not just voluntary contraception
use, but they explicitly studied women who want contraception and don’t have
it. They also focused on condoms,
which are the hardest method to use for coercion, since all you have to do in
order to stop using the method is to leave it in the wrapper. They
explicitly framed the suggestion as correcting an inequality. Overall, the report itself and its defenders
are not only not being racist, but are explicitly rejecting condescending
arguments that suggest that women in developing countries—where most lack of
access occurs—can’t make these decisions for themselves.
But it’s unwise to simply wave your hand and say, “That was
then, and this is now, and if you look at the facts unemotionally, all
potential objections about coercion are unfounded.” With touchy issues like this, simply setting history aside is
never an option. In fact, one
could legitimately argue that going forward without being mindful of the
abusive history of forced population control would open doors for that abuse to
happen again. Erring on the side
of caution when it comes to a freedom as basic as the freedom to control your
own reproduction—which is to say not forcing women to bear children but also
not forcing them not to—is a good instinct that should be honored. If reproductive rights activists want
to work strictly in the frame of freedom, and to be officially indifferent to
the effects that our activism could have on the environment, then there’s an
honorable reason for it.
That said, I’m also sympathetic to the strategy, employed
most obviously by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their new book Half The Sky, of trying to match our
goal of greater female liberation to other goals, in order to create coalitions
and get more power and funding.
Kristof and WuDunn focus on how female liberation can provide dramatic
economic outcomes for developing countries. Environmentalism could be a hook to get people who aren’t
moved by human rights arguments to pay more attention. It’s ugly that you need a hook to get
more people to care about women, but if the end result is better lives for more
women, then whatever it takes, right?
And yet, the lurking fear is that going about this the wrong
way could lead to worse outcomes than before. And I genuinely don’t have a pat answer for how to get
around this conundrum. I wish I did.