Toward Democratic Reproductive Rights
A democratic and sustainable approach to human reproduction must incorporate social, ethical, and ecological criteria avoiding the dogmatism and extremism of both pronatalist right-wing religious fundamentalism and antinatalist neo-Malthusian family planning. Appropriate technology and democratic social relations must define the realm of human biological reproduction as they must the realm of economic production. Numerical targets and economic incentives must be abolished from family-planning programs in the south and they must not be extended to the north. Quality health-care services and a range of safe contraceptives that help protect people against STDS and HIV/AIDS are required. Development of safe male contraceptives is essential for greater male-female partnership in birth control and family planning. Abortion should not be used as a contraceptive method, but safe and legal abortions should be available to women who need them. Given that abortion is a painful decision for women, there must be social support and compassion for women to make their own decisions. Where needed, safe methods of infertility treatment should also be made available to poor women, not merely fertility control.
Reproductive rights cannot be realized where the basic material needs of people are not met. Education, employment, and access to other economic resources are essential if people are to make their family-planning decisions freely. Thus, the very definitions of reproduction and family planning need to be enlarged to include the material needs of individuals, families, and communities. Continued avoidance of basic health and economic survival issues will only enable religious fundamentalist groups to present themselves as the guardians of family and community. This is beginning to happen in the area of HIV/AIDS prevention, which has been relatively neglected by family planners. The powerful evangelical Christian movement in the United States is beginning to take a leadership role in international HIV/AIDS prevention with the backing of the current U.S. government. While efforts to eradicate the deadly disease need to be welcomed, it is important to recognize that the fundamentalist Christians may use the opportunity to propagate their own moral values with regard to sexuality and gender norms and to advocate abstinence over protected sex.
In many regions, poverty eradication is also falling into the hands of internationally funded religious fundamentalist groups. Evangelical Christian groups in particular are stepping in to fill the social and economic vacuum created by privatization of state sectors and cutbacks in state social welfare accompanying economic globalization. But unlike the family planners who provide economic incentives to the poor for acceptance of sterilization or contraception, the religious proselytizers require religious conversion to their faith and the acceptance of their moral injunctions. These developments are adding further confusion and complexity to societies already torn asunder by other political-economic and cultural contradictions.
If poverty eradication is to be genuine, it must go beyond economic incentives given in exchange for contraceptive acceptance or religious conversion. In the long-term, poverty eradication calls for setting limits on corporate profit-making and on the widening gaps between the north and the south and between the rich and the poor within countries. In order to have democratic family planning, overconsumption of resources by rich families needs to be reduced and underconsumption by poor families needs to be augmented. The optimum balance between human well-being and environmental sustainability can be achieved through rational use of natural resources, sustainable economic production, and more equitable consumption.
The concepts of family and community need to be further extended, recognizing that childbirth and human reproduction are increasingly taking place outside male-headed nuclear families. It is necessary to find a more democratic approach toward reproductive rights and human liberation that transcends the extremes of both patriarchal right-wing fundamentalism and top-down authoritarian family planning. To do so, a balance needs to be struck between the traditional role of the self-sacrificing mother and the modern role of the individualist career woman. To find a middle path, women need support from men, their families, communities, work places, and the larger world. To confront the extraordinary challenges facing humanity, it is essential to create more loving and sustainable families. Family planning needs to move beyond the narrow focus of fertility control to treating humanity, if not all planetary life, as one extended family.
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