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Reclaiming the Means of Reproduction

A call to action in the war against women’s rights.

Michelle Goldberg’s captivating book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World (Penguin Press, $25.95) is perfectly timed to remind those who came of age post-Roe v. Wade and might think they can relax under an Obama administration, just how much work is left to do. An investigative journalist and author previously of Kingdom Coming: the Rise of Christian Nationalism, Goldberg has imbued this long-running story with fresh power by telling it in her young feminist voice.

The Means of Reproduction is a sweeping history of U.S. foreign policy on international family planning that spans four continents and covers issues such as birth control, abortion, HIV/AIDS, their intersections with environmental concerns and economic development, and the gender politics of it all, while staying in intimate touch with how America’s policies affect real women globally.

The story begins during the 1960s’ cold war, when Republicans like John D. Rockefeller and, yes, George H.W. “Rubbers” Bush led the charge to secure U.S. funding for international family planning, convinced that population pressures threatened national security. Then as now, family planning proponents met predictable adversaries. Goldberg writes, “There is one thing that unites cultural conservatives throughout the world, a critique that joins Protestant fundamentalism, Islamists, Hindu Nationalists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and ultramontane Catholics. All view women’s equality and self-possession as unnatural, a violation of the established order. Yet in one society after another, we can see the absence of women’s rights creating existential dangers.”

Goldberg glosses over the central role played by Family Planning International Assistance (as Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s international division was then known) in scaling family planning services overseas, and their lonely, ultimately unsuccessful, battle against the Global Gag Rule which, off and on since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, has proscribed U.S. funding of birth control services to organizations that provide or even discuss abortion. (President Obama removed the Gag Rule by executive order but underlying legislation remains.)

More important, The Means of Reproduction argues persuasively in today’s vernacular how the absence of women’s human right to reproductive self-determination contributes to overpopulation, environmental disaster, unhealthy families, HIV/AIDS, and sex-ratio imbalances that threaten global stability.

During my 30 years in the leadership of Planned Parenthood, I met many of the characters Goldberg depicts, with all their strengths and faults. And having joined the movement soon after the infamous Helms amendment banned U. S. foreign assistance for abortion or abortion-related services, I hope her recounting of the political damage and human carnage Sen. Helms’ law has wreaked will ignite a ringing call to rescind it.

Michelle Goldberg’s Reproductive rights aren’t everything women need, but without them, women can’t determine anything else in their lives. After eight years of the George W. Bush administration’s all-out war on women’s rights, Goldberg awakens a new generation to the imperative of undoing the damage and moving forward vigorously once again.

Gloria Feldt is the author of The War on Choice and former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She’s currently writing a book about women’s relationship with power.