Can We Untwist Women’s Rights from Environmental Concerns? Should We?


The single most disturbing/frustrating
thing about working in the area of reproductive rights is that the issue
gets clogged up by its inevitable linkage with the
politics of population. Nothing, short of religion, causes more
anguish and confusion than the subject of where more people come from
and whether or not this can or should be controlled. No matter
how stalwart the reproductive justice activist may be in her view that she
participates in this activism strictly to promote women’s rights and
human rights generally, concerns about population will invade the discourse and she
must deal with them.

"Fewer people," shout the
environmentalists. (I should show my hand and confess that I am
an environmentalist of this stripe, though I oppose all coercion of
course.) "More people," scream the right wingers — at least
on the subject of white people with money. In fact, screaming
"more babies" could make you the butt of jokes for
eons to come
, so
I highly recommend that right wingers who feel this urge learn to control
themselves. Without commenting right now on whether or not the
various attitudes are right or wrong, it’s clear that various ideological
strains pollute people’s ability to see through population issues to reproductive
rights clearly.

People on the left are guilty.
Because we’ve all seen "An Inconvenient Truth" and the alarming
graph that links carbon emissions to the population explosion of the
20th century, we can’t help but draw links between empowering
women and saving the environment by reducing the birth rate. It’s
not wrong to do this. We do know that women, if given full rights
not only to control their fertility but to participate in the public
sphere as citizens, tend to limit their family sizes. But if we
put the environmental lens before the women’s rights lens, we may
not see ways that women are abused by being forced to have fewer children
than they want. Coerced sterilizations, the one-child policy in
China, Medicaid that pays you to have IUDs put in but not taken out — while
feminists pay attention to these things, they often fly under the radar
of liberals who apply an environmentalist lens, and that’s a shame.

The beauty of the women’s
rights lens is it doesn’t conflict with the environmentalist lens
most of the time. We know that women limit their child-bearing
on their own if given the tools to do so. There’s not much use
in wasting time worrying about theoretical conflicts between women’s
rights to have as many children as they want and limiting population
when we live in a world where women generally prefer to keep the number
of children low.

On the flip side, you have
right-wingers screaming that we’re running out of people in
a world that’s home to four times the number of people it hosted a century ago.
As usual, we’re seeing a troubling trend where right wing loonies
come up with an idea born of base motivations — in this case, sexism
and racism — and it gets polished up and mainstreamed as something not
so bad. The idea that falling
birthrates should be a matter of public concern was born out of the
anti-choice movement, looking for excuses to restrict women’s rights.
It’s been fed by racist anti-immigration
sentiment in Europe and America. This turd got polished with a
story about how our societies will collapse unless we keep growing in
population, which gave the "low population" alarm enough credibility
to be taken seriously as a feature
story in the New York Times Magazine.

The article does hint at the ugly right wing intentions behind this
alarm, but brushes them off, suggesting even that there’s something
wholesome and even feminist about encouraging women to see their main duty
to society as making more babies.

But at least the article did
entertain the idea that there’s something not quite right about the
assumption that we absolutely must keep making the population bigger
to sustain the generations before — which is always my concern
about the "economic stability through child-bearing" model of economics.
Yes, the economy keeps growing if you keep feeding more babies into
it, who in turn feed the consumer economy. But ultimately, isn’t the idea of just
generating more and more consumers to feed the economy a form of a pyramid scheme? And we know what happens with pyramid
schemes — eventually, the resources run out and all the people on those who were most economically compromised to begin with get screwed out of their investment.

That’s what I’ll fear will
happen if we don’t rebuild our economy so that it functions with a
declining instead of exploding population. The machine that fuels
an expanding population and economy is the limited resources of our
planet, and once that runs out — and it will, just as a population of
new recruits into the pyramid scheme runs out for Amway participants — the
people at the bottom rung get screwed. And that bottom rung is all the
babies we’re supposed to be making to keep the engine running. Nice
exploitation of our own children that right wingers are proposing.

But there I go again, mixing
in my other political views with my views on reproductive rights.
Is it ever really possible to untwist your feelings on the subject of
reproductive rights from your other feelings? I like to think
that I’m primarily for reproductive rights because I’m for women’s
rights, but it never hurts to know that true reproductive freedom helps slow population growth.
If I were presented evidence that improving women’s lot in life doesn’t
help the environment, I would like to think that I’d say that we should
help women anyway. But can I know, deep down inside, what I’d
feel? Can you?

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  • invalid-0

    Glad you mentioned China’s policy: one-child/family enforced by the government and the population has almost doubled in my lifetime. It is no accident the Communists hold most of our debt: it’s a lot easier to plan growth with reasonable expectation for popultion growth. Imagine the economic and environmental hurt today if the tables were reversed and China’s 10-billion needed all the crap we buy from them in Wal-Mart. We are the ones who grudgingly accept access to birth control and as a country don’t raise hue and cry each time another abortion clinic closes. Never knew about Medicaid’s refusal to remove IUDs – that’s an hypocrisy worthy of exposure (when was that enacted?).

  • invalid-0

    I too was disgusted at the NYT Magazine article (but not too shocked since they have Kristol writing “op-eds” now)and I don’t feel so alone in my belief that there are far too many people on the planet right now- and there are countries like China and Inida moving toward a more Americanized existence and attendant pollution.
    We are going to screw the human race out of a planet if we’re not careful about population and yet its something that even some environmentalists don’t want to discuss for fear of offending someone.
    All the recycling in the world won’t help if women go back to unsustainable birthrates.
    But I guess I’m naieve in thinking that each person lucky enough to be on the planet should have a good life.