Michelle Goldberg (BSS #286)

Michelle Goldberg is most recently the author of The Means of Reproduction.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if there’s any fate in what we make.

Author: Michelle Goldberg

Subjects Discussed: Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, the proper response to reproductive rights issues, the damage of hyperbolic predictions, European birth rates, parental leave and working mothers, obsolescence and internal upheavals, the fear of Muslim populations in Europe, replacement fertility, the mommy wars, panic about the birth rate and public debate, the gender selection process in India thanks to the ubiquity of ultrasound, the lack of an anti-abortion movement and feminism in India, “seemingly liberated” women, Fuambai Ahmadu, female circumcision, cultural relativism, the Vatican’s role in the 1994 Cairo UN Population Conference, Eve Ensler and imperialism, Agnes Pareyio, the steamroller of globalization, the United States’s global gag rule on family planning, reaching out to conservatives, Africa and abortion, abortion-related mortality, the greater commonality among religious conservatives than with feminists, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination and the United States’s failure to ratify CEDAW, whether or not international law has an impact on a national level in relation to reproductive rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, Reagan and the rise of the religious right, Ray Ravenholt’s birth control efforts in Pakistan during 1976, sophists and generalist arguments, Julian Simon’s comforting fallacies, George Lakoff, supply-side demography, and demagoguery vs. nuanced arguments.


Correspondent: You use the words — the modifier “seemingly liberated’ — to describe this educated Indian woman who goes and, of her own volition, says, “I want to have boys. I don’t want to have girls.” Let’s actually take this into consideration, along with the case of Fuambai Ahmadu, who would feel very much insulted by the notion that she is not empowered. Here is someone who has been circumcized and who finds the notion of being mutilated — that particular verb as applied to her — very gravely offensive. So now we’re dealing with a scenario in which, if we are trying to talk about broader problems like reproduction and reproduction rights, we are also talking about having to deal with people who have values that are 180 from us. And simultaneously we’re trying to get through to them. But now we’re in a situation in which we have to find some kind of Venn diagram of how we talk with them. And if you think that this is not reconcilable, as you suggested two answers ago, I must point out some problems with this overall thesis. Because if we cannot communicate to these people; if we cannot respect the rights in a cultural relativist way of these people to make decisions that are converse to pro-choice, that are converse to women’s right (at least as they are established in our country), how then do we find common ground here?

Goldberg: Well, I’m not saying that we can’t discuss them. I’m saying that I don’t think it’s always — or maybe it’s just beyond me — to create some kind of absolutist system in which we can kind of hallucinate and create a hierarchy of what falls under the category of universal human rights, what is multiculturalism, and how we value the right of people to perpetuate their own cultural practices vs. the rights of dissidents to be protected by universal human rights guarantees. I clearly, over and over again, tend to side with people who say — with minorities who do demand to be protected by the same kind of universal human rights guarantees that I cherish. I’m not particularly sympathetic to multiculturalist or relativistic arguments, as opposed to universal kind of enlightenment type arguments. But I guess what I’m saying is that this book is about — I’m often interested in the ambiguities and the hard questions and the human stories in which it’s not as easy to sort out this hierarchy of values. You know, I’m not a philosopher like Martha Nussbaum, who has created this very rigorous and well thought out taxonomy of these different issues.

Correspondent: I guess that the question here is: When someone like Eve Ensler goes to Kenya and gives a V Day jeep to Agnes Pareyio, is there not something imperialistic about that notion of taking our particular values and stamping them onto another country that doesn’t necessarily reflect it? I mean, this is really what the problem is in terms of your complaints about the Cairo conference — the UN convention — in which you complain about the Vatican and you point out, “Well, it’s a country of 1,000 people. Mostly celibate men.” Nevertheless, it is a country. Nevertheless, we do have to have some sort of communicative process. The question is what conditions would seem to be fair to present these messages in ways that don’t feel imperialist and that don’t encroach upon these terms that we may consider here in America to be terrible or perjorative or just really against our notion of human rights and what someone else considers to be, “Well, this is my form of empowerment. This is the way I go about the universe.”

Goldberg: Well, let’s back up and explain what we’re talking about here, right? We’re talking about the context of Agnes Pareyio.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Goldberg: And Fuambai Ahmadu. We’re talking about female genital cutting, or female circumcision. Fuamabi Ahmadu is a woman in this book who is from Sierra Leone, who undergoes circumcision as an adult, who is someone who talks about it being a valuable part of her cultural identity, who is probably the most eloquent defender of the practice on the global stage. In part because, although it’s clearly very valued in these societies — otherwise, people wouldn’t fight so hard to keep the practices alive — the people who genuinely practice it aren’t people who have a lot of access to NGOs and the media, etcetera. So I think she’s an important voice. At the same time, I think the question of whether Eve Ensler is being imperialistic by supporting these women in Kenya who are fighting female genital cutting, I don’t know. To me, it’s not that interesting. And I think if you brought that up with Agnes Pareyio, who is someone who’s from the community who practices this, who’s underwent it herself, who’s regretted it her whole life, who’s a grassroots activist against it. Girls were running away from home to escape this practice and she was finding them places to stay and enrolling them in school. And then she finally met Eve Ensler. And then Eve Ensler started to support her. I think that the question of “Well, is it imperialist to support Agnes Pareyio?” is kind of insulting to her. Because she has just as much right. She’s just as authentic a voice for her community. She has just as much right to try to change and create progress in her community as we have to create progress in ours.


  1. MrK

    So according to Michelle Goldberg, there are not enough people in Europe, but the population of the developing world is growing so fast that ‘we can’t support them all’? Here is a radical idea, Michelle: the people of the developing world are not being supported by the West, they are supporting the West. Africa gives 4x as much to the West as it receives in ‘donor aid’, for instance. Oil, gold, diamonds…

    The problem is that we have trillionairs who are hoarding the resources of the planet, and that is far more acute an issue than population growth. Most of the world’s resources are not even close to being exploited to the full. 97% of land in Africa is not under irrigation. Actual manufacturing is barely developed.

    The problem is that a surface understanding of events doesn’t allow for an appreciation of why people are poor, even though the country is rich. The easy conclusion that ‘there are too many people’ actually helps the oligarchs, who are more than happy to thin the population, as they have done so often before.

    And Eve Ensler – her emphasis on female circumcision is only exoticising what is going on. For instance, why are men in a village killed, the women then raped, and this is called ‘femicide’? Why are the men all of a sudden invisible? That is not an oversight, that is a slight of hand. Why does she not wonder who actually finances the soldiers and militias to terrorize and clear out large areas for mining purposes? Who are the mining companies – tackling them would be much more efficient way of doing something ‘for women’ in the DRC.

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