Rebel Girl: Family Planning Without Women??

Against the Current, No. 53, November/December 1994

Catherine Sameh

THE UNITED NATION’S Third International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo has come and gone, and the women of the world are little if any better for it. While women’s organizations were promised a role in the play, it was the Clinton administration represented by vice-president Al Gore who stole the show.

From most media coverage of this global event, with participation around the world, you would have thought there were only two constituencies — religious conservatives embodied in Pope John Paul, and the liberal population control establishment led by Gore — leaving little room for the voices of those affected most directly by population policies, women of the developing countries.

In response to the Vatican, which opposes any family planning that includes abortion services, birth control or education around sexuality, the Clinton administration’s request that $585 million be spent on population programs in 1995 seems humane. But behind the rhetoric of concern for women and the environment lies a deeply racist and misogynist world view that holds poor women responsible for global environmental devastation.

As Betsy Hartmann, feminist activist and a scholar on reproductive rights issues, says in the September/October issue of Dollars and Sense, population growth has become the new “Evil Empire,” bringing population control “back in vogue.”

Without any analysis of the distribution of wealth and consumption of resources worldwide, “family planning” programs become a means of scapegoating poor women, and deliver very few services that meet real needs.

Hartmann cites some alarming statistics. “The industrialized nations, home to 22% of the world’s population, consume 60% of the world’s food, 70% of its energy, 75% of its metals, and 85% of its wood. They generate almost three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emissions, which in turn comprise nearly half of the manmade greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and are responsible for most of the ozone depletion.”

In addition, “the U.S. military is the largest domestic oil consumer and generates more toxic waste than the five largest multinational chemical companies combined.” Compared to this monstrosity, the reproductive patterns of poor women around the world have minimal environmental impact.

Certainly, family planning as a concept is important. Women everywhere need access to birth control, abortion services and sex education.

But they also need adequate health care, housing, education, jobs and child care, so that control over their reproductive lives is actually possible. And Third World countries need out from under their international debt, so that their governments can spend money on these services.

Forcing poor women to use unsafe, often untested, methods of birth control or undergo sterilization, often in exchange for money or some material item as incentive — which has been and remains the focus of family planning programs — is unconscionable.

ATC 53, November-December 1994