The means of reproduction

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LISA MULLINS: The US government has long taken an interest in family planning of the developing world. In the 1950's, the Eisenhower administration became alarmed by the increase in the world's population. The way Washington saw it, overpopulation would cause misery ? and that could lead countries to succumb to communism. Michelle Goldberg writes about this in her new book called, ?The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World.? She spoke with us about the tension that exists over how some Western women and Muslim women in Africa see the issue of female genital mutilation. But first, she spoke of what happened here in the US back in the 1970s. The American government teamed up with a man in California who concocted a device in his kitchen. It was an abortion kit ? handheld, with no anesthesia used by the person who was administering it. Now, this was before Roe v. Wade, so the man was an illegal abortionist.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: The guy in California is a very interesting figure. His name was Harvey Karmen. He was kind of a man of the counter-culture. Abortion was really his crusade, and he really believed in this. So anyway, he had invented this device which is basically now used all around the world. It's the Manual Vacuum Aspiration syringe. And at the same time you had another guy ? the guy who was the first head of population at USAID. It's a guy named Ray Ravenholt ? kind of a libertine, loved to shock people ? but also a really brilliant epidemiologist. And he just saw, traveling around the world, the massive toll that unsafe abortion was taking on women's health. And at the same time, he was very concerned about population control and saw safe abortion as a form of population control. And the funny thing is is that when I asked Ray Ravenholt, ?How did you think you could get away with this? You know, having the United States contract with this guy?? He had this very kind of cavalier attitude. He said, you know, ?He had what we needed, so what the hell.?

MULLINS: You know, it sounds like the fate of so many women across the country and across the world was basically at the whim of either entrepreneurs or at the pointy end of foreign policy, in fact. Where were women in all of this?

GOLDBERG: Nowhere, actually, and that was the problem -- is that although these men weren't necessarily badly intentioned, they thought of women as so many wombs, so many uteri because they were so focused on overpopulation, they were supportive of somewhat coercive methods. You know, in India, for example, giving women a Sari or giving men a transistor radio after undergoing sterilization, they often encouraged the use of IUDs because they felt like women couldn't be trusted to make their own decision, so you need to kind of give them an IUD which is going to last for however many years. Often in places where women didn't have access to the kind of health care they needed, if something went wrong and they needed to take it out or even if just the IUD expired and they needed to take it out. You know, so it's a very morally mixed period. On the one hand, this push did bring contraception to people all over the world and it did improve many, many people's lives and it was a huge spurt to development. On the other hand, it could be very callous. It could really ignore the reason women wanted to have children, ignore their own needs and their own priorities.

MULLINS: Michelle, take us to the room in New York -- October 6th of 2007, which you write about in the book. There was a conversation ? I guess you could even say an oral confrontation in a way, between two women who took sides on an extremely sensitive and controversial issue, that being the issue of female genital cutting or mutilation. Tell us about these two women, one of whom was an American.

GOLDBERG: Well, sure. For many years, there has been a Western campaign to end female genital cutting in Africa. Nobody quite knows when the practice began, and it varies in severity throughout the continent. Often the genitalia are cut off with kind of very crude tools ? you know, we're talking razors and knives, and the lips sewn together except for just a mere pinhole until the woman is married. And there are real physical repercussions from, you know, kind of shock or bleeding to death when it's done to obviously sexual problems and also problems in delivery. And Western governments and aid agencies have put pressure on African governments to outlaw this practice. And what really opened my eyes was being at this event and seeing this woman, Flambi, an American woman ? incredibly articulate, incredibly empowered ? talking about how she had chosen to undergo this practice as an adult, when she was a senior in college. And she went back to Sierra Leone and had it done in her ancestral village.

MULLINS: This is a woman who was born here in America, studied at University of Chicago and here she goes back to have this done in Sierra Leone.

GOLDBERG: Right. And she felt this connected her to her culture, that it connected her to her ancestors. And the fact is is that in most societies that practice it, most women tend to support it.

MULLINS: So this is -- she said it was empowering, and you say there are many women who feel the same way. And then opposite her is a woman named Grace Mose of Kenya.

GOLDBERG: Who was also circumcised as a child, against her will. And she was just aghast, you know, as Flombai was talking, she's showing pictures from a book about the graphic and horrible medical complications that can ensue. She's talking about how no Western woman came and told her that this was painful, that it was destructive. She went through it and she knew, and she can't believe that, you know, another African woman would defend it. And you know, other women in the audience reacted similarly. One woman stood up and said, ?We have to call this what it is: mutilation.? And Flombai had a really interesting response. She said, ?I am different then you. I am excised. I am not mutilated. ? And in fact, she compared mutilation ? the ?m? word ? to someone using the ?n? word, comparable to an ethnic slur.

MULLINS: So how did you reconcile your interest in women's rights, in women's health, with a sensitivity of cultural rituals, with the knowledge that there are many women who have been subjected to female genital cutting or mutilation who not only have had it done but endorse it and carry it out on younger women?

GOLDBERG: Well, this is in certain ways, the biggest issue of the book as a whole. And as a journalist rather than, you know, as a policymaker, the only thing I can do is present the position as best I can of people who support this practice and explain why it's not as simple as kind of Western feminists might think. We should sympathize with people who are anxious and angry as their culture is, as they see it, being lost to globalization. But our real support should, in my opinion, go to women who are demanding to be protected by the same human rights guarantees that we enjoy.

MULLINS: All right. Thank you very much. Nice to talk to you. Michelle Goldberg, author of the book, ?The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World.? Nice to speak with you.

GOLDBERG: Oh, thank you so much.