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on April 5, 2009
I first read about this book at in an interview of Michelle Goldberg by Mandy Van Deven. I ordered it immediately and had to wait for it to arrive on April 4. This book is landing in our march toward reproductive intelligence, liberty and health at precisely the right moment. While social justice is unfolding; the backlash is mounting, gasping its last breaths, this book is rich with vision and understanding.
American women need to understand the reach of their influence, their dollars and their personal religion. There are places in the world where pregnancy and childbirth can be punishment, torture and deadly, US policies are contributing through policies and funding certain programs, unfunding others, gag orders and relinquishing responsibility to religious organizations.
Michelle explains all of this and more, making it clear how decisions in Washington DC or a neighborhood clinic end up practiced in Africa or India with no understanding of the cultural consequences.

The Means of Reproduction is brilliant, responsible and approachable. I highly recommend it. Finally a book that makes it clear that American women, with all our freedom, need to commit to provide women world-wide with comprehensive birth control information and methods.
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on March 21, 2011
Although I, like many other readers, I imagine, picked up this book expecting to hear a good argument in favor of reproductive rights, it is much, much, much more than that. This is not a book about abortion, although it includes abortion as a crucial topic. But rather, this is a book with a simple but somewhat revolutionary premise: that the solution to our most pressing concerns, both individual and societal, is the liberation of women around the world.

Michelle Goldberg makes her case very well- the book is fastidiously annotated and full of relevant statistics, well-researched history, and she strikes the perfect balance between listing the data, extrapolating its meaning, and illustrating it on the personal level with the stories of real-life men and women. Her writing is highly readable; while clearly academically rigorous, it is never too dry, too academic, bogged down in statistics or boring, nor is it overly familiar or reductionist. Or, in plainer words- I loved reading every minute of it, and there were plenty of late nights, reluctant to go to bed before I'd finished out a chapter.

Goldberg also does a tremendous job of addressing criticism- she discusses the overt colonialist nature of population control both in its infancy and in some cases, even today, she reports well on the callousness with which individual women were treated by organizations whose only goal was reducing the number of births. She carefully discusses the debacle of Rosita, wherein the very women seeking to help the young girl and her mother escape and terminate the pregnancy may have inadvertently or even knowingly and complicitly covered up her stepfathers' abuse and involvement. She acknowledges that plenty of feminists and cultural relativists both have rejected support for measures that they saw as colonialist, and have defended acts like female genital cutting. And she cautions against paternalistic measures that impose Western ideology onto foreign cultures, instead championing the support of feminists in their own countries, who are working to change attitudes and policy from within. She walks a fine line in her attempts to respect culture and avoid bias, and ultimately succeeds when she writes that when women are running away of their own volition and sometimes risking death, there is undoubtedly something wrong with that culture.

Goldberg also does well to describe discrepancies in statistics and trends that others might gloss over- she admits that the legalization and wide availability of birth control can also increase the rate of abortion, rather than depress it, as learning they can control their fertility, women seek to control it even further. She widely discusses the apparent anomaly presented by India, where increased education of women hasn't translated to an elevation in their status. And even after debunking much of the religious right's desperate pleas for population growth via a return to traditional family structures, she doesn't merely sweep away their worries, pointing out that the dwindling ratio of young people to pensioners is a valid concern, one that can and should be remedied. She admits that it may very well be America's religiosity that contributes to our uniquely higher birth rate, and contrasts maternal care between Sweden and Germany to explain the latter's lower birth rate. It is hard to find any bias and holes in her discussion of the research- she has done a phenomenal job of explaining unclear data and admitting when there is ambiguity that cannot easily be explained.

This book does not make any new conclusions- as Goldberg readily acknowledges, pointing out that the UN, UNFPA, IPAS, and other various governments and NGO's have explicitly stated her conclusion decades earlier. For those of us who do not closely follow international summits and are not well-versed in international feminist politics, though, this book is a wealth of information and its conclusion and call to action, I suspect, will be eye-opening to most.

I found it highly readable, well-researched, and immensely logical. The stories within its covers are depressing and sad, infuriating, and horrific, but also inspiring, hopeful, and amazing. This is not a pessimistic book, but an optimistic one that lays out the problem, demonstrates what has and has not been shown to work in the past, and says in no uncertain terms "This is what can make the world a better place." It is vastly important in scope- even if you think you don't care about reproductive rights, you should be reading it. Even if you disagree with the very concept of reproductive rights, you should be reading it. It comes highly, highly recommended . . . before I had even finished my library copy, I went out and purchased one for my own bookshelves- that's how impressed with it I was, and how sure I was that I would want to quote it later and need it handy.

Bravo to Michelle Goldberg- I look forward to reading her other works based on the incredibly favorable impression she has left me with thus far.
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on November 19, 2011
'The mean's of Reproduction' by Michelle Goldberg is a book I debated a long time about even buying. I am passionate about women's reproductive health issues and usually I leave books like this on the shelf where I found them. I always wind up furious because of the ignorance of religious radicals passing themselves off as intelligent. The dismissive attitude of those who want to control we women's bodies due to their religious beliefs. I was raised in an era where abortion and in too many cases birth control was illegal. If you got pregnant out of wedlock you were just stuck. You either married the guy, hoped your parents didn't kick you out or went to a home for unwed mothers. If you were a woman with complications during died...especially if you were in a Catholic Hospital. There were no options available. I have no desire to return to that era.
I am often amazed at how religion does not view we women as individuals just as extensions of men, especially the Pope. If I hadn't left the Catholic Church a decade ago over this issue, I would be making my way out the front door with this. We women aren't even deserving of personhood. About all we are is a womb to be controlled. How they have the nerve to even call themselves pro life, when in too many cases they are anything but, is insulting to our intelligence? The misery and human suffering they peddle is infuriating. How they shamelessly insist upon pushing Christian dogma on people who are non-Christian is truly revolting. I am also amazed at the people who imagine we can go on over populating without some day paying an enormous price for our follies. It should be obvious to even the most unobservant we are overpopulating this planet.
I found this book to be tastefully done and not offensive to my senses. In short it was a good read and I didn't start foaming at the mouth once. Thankfully it dealt more with international reproductive rights and some of the champions who have fought for their right to their own body and their own mind. Than it did the ones who insult we women's intelligence in this country. So all told I found it informative and enlightening. Something I plan on my Granddaughters reading just so they are informed. Something even I didn't have a hard time reading.
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on October 25, 2009
In this powerful book, Goldberg deftly weaves the accounts of individual women against the backdrop of nations, cultures, international law, and US policy as she illustrates the impact of women's rights in general, and reproductive rights in particular, on not only the women themselves, but on our global society. She argues convincingly that providing all women with reproductive freedom--including access to reliable birth control, safe abortion, and educational opportunities that enhance their economic potential and their ability to self-advocate--can be a powerful means for lifting both women and their families out of poverty. This book made me alternately angry and hopeful by outlining the successes and failures of numerous countries, including the United States, in ensuring that women's potential is achieved. Goldberg shows us what has worked, what has failed, what the threats are to continued progress, what the potential outcomes are if those threats are allowed to prevail, and what rewards we can anticipate if all countries would move forward in recognizing the valuable contributions and the basic human rights of women.
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on June 12, 2009
I highly recommend this book! The book is obviously meticulously researched and there is a lot of factual information, but it is never boring. It is very well written - the author addresses broad, complex issues and provides insightful analysis, but also brings in personal stories and descriptions of characters.
If you are interested in human rights, economic development, international politics or women's issues you will get a lot out of it.
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on April 5, 2009
Just read Nick Kristoff's op-ed column in the Sunday Times on the need for more funding for international family planning assistance. The Means of Reproduction is critical to a modern understanding of why something as simple and noncontroversial as family planning has been stalled for the last decade by the US religious right and the Vatican. Solid data, great stories and good analysis.
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on March 6, 2012
Michelle Goldberg's "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" was a disturbing look at a movement that most on the moderate-to-left spectrum find instinctively repulsive. And yet, she covered her material with considerable humanity, avoiding the easy jabs at fundamentalism that have become commonplace in "debates" about religion and its place in the modern (western) world. Though an unapologetic secularist, she avoided the us-and-them mentality of new atheism, instead focusing on issues that could easily unite non-believers and the many among the devout who have no desire to see their faith become an institutionalized tool of demagogues.

"The Means of Reproduction" is better still. The scope is broader, but the journalism is no less incisive. It combines compelling stories of individual women fighting for reproductive rights - and, in some instances, provides empathetic accounts of women who support traditional norms - with hard facts. This is a fascinating, often grim, often moving, and occasionally uplifting look at a series of issues that, despite the headlines they generate, play a tiny role in North America relative to the rest of the world, in particular the Global South. Ms. Goldberg deftly navigates the issues without falling prey to the cultural jingoism of the right nor the toxic relativism of the left. The latter is especially prevalent in issues related to genital mutilation, where it has taken on an anti-colonial symbolism that, for many, trumps its overwhelmingly negative health effects.

In addition to the present scene, Ms. Goldberg provides a history of the schizophrenic political nature of family planning initiatives that is worthy of a book in its own right. If there is one problem with this book, it's that it could be two.

The objective yet impassioned story that Ms. Goldberg weaves is too compelling to be ignored. In a perfect world, we would base our debates about things as grave as reproductive rights around fine works like this, and not around the crowds that gather at abortion clinics.
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on April 5, 2009
Michelle Goldberg brings passion and intelligence to an important global issue--women's health and rights. Her ability to combine political analysis with compelling storytelling makes this an interesting and informative read.
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on February 20, 2013
This is a book about women having babies, or not having babies. If too many women have too many babies, then politicians fear an "over-population crisis." If too many women have too few babies, then politicians worry about "national decline." Governments may feel that they have to intervene, even coercively, to induce women to produce more--or less--babies, but the author believes that if women are free to make their own choices, things will turn round right in the end.

Besides, it's the right thing to do. Women's sexuality has been controlled by family, clan, and society for far too long. Like slavery, the oppression of women is a fundamental human sin, and it needs to be challenged at every corner. Goldberg believes that. I believe that.

Her title is a play on the Marxist-laden term, "means of production." If tools, farm implements, workshops, and factories are the means of production, then women are the means of reproduction. No pregnant women = no new babies. Due to the march of science that may change one day, but for all of human history it has been a fundamental truth.

These days, it may seem rather anthropocentric for journalist-author Michelle Goldberg to claim that her book is about "the future of the world." One suspects that the world--the living, organic world--would be better off without us. And that planet earth--with its swirling gasses, alternating eras of fire and ice, and crunching tectonic plates--will snuff us out if we keep messing with it. So what Goldberg really means is the future of human society, and yes, the question of human reproduction is critical to our future.

Public concern about rates of reproduction is not new. The rulers of ancient Sparta incorporated pronatalist policies in their famous regimen--including feeding women a warrior's diet--so that new crops of warriors could replace the fallen. The (male) rulers of Athens tightened and loosened the laws of citizenship by birth, depending upon whether they felt they had too many or too few citizens (i.e., men). In the 19th Century, French leaders worried that the Germans and English would outpace them in population growth--which they both did. This concern turned to near despair after WWI.

Goldberg picks up the story in the mid-Twentieth Century with the development of the international family planning movement. Now the worry is over-population, not under-population. Populations in Africa, Latin America, and Asia were expanding geometrically, but food supplies were expected to grow more slowly and be outstripped. The classic Malthusian curse. The result would be famine on a massive scale, and these regions would never escape the crippling bonds of hunger and poverty.

The first approach was to encourage--and in some cases, mandate--birth control. Massive education programs were needed, along with easy access to condoms, safe abortions, tubal ligations, and vasectomies. This approach led to the excesses of the Chinese Government, with its draconian enforcement of the one-child policy (compelled abortions, severe economic penalties for having a second child); and the excesses of the Indian Government, where Sanjay Gandhi headed a massive campaign in which "Millions of men were bribed, threatened, or physically forced into vasectomy camps." (Pages 82-83)

Iron-fisted programs caused a public backlash in India, and forced a reappraisal in international circles. Goldberg's book covers the ensuing debate as it played out in United Nations' forums on population and development. During the 1990s a coalition of feminists and human rights activists adopted the view that government agencies should not attempt to control men's or women's bodies. They further asserted that the real key to limiting population was to educate and empower women, so that they could make their own choices about how many children they wanted to have. History has shown that this thesis is correct. As women gain education, opportunities to work, and freedom to choose, they choose to have less children. Algeria and Turkey are two good examples. By 2008 their birth rates had dropped to 1.82 and 1.87 children per family--lower than the replacement rate of 2.1. (page 214) Goldberg cites the Indian state of Kerala as a model for what can be done:

Until 1971, Kerala had the highest growth rate in India, with an average of 4.1 children per woman. By 1992, enormous investments in women's education, freely available family planning, and comprehensive health care had [helped] push fertility down to 1.8.... (page 183)

Even so, it appears that population may not level out for another 40 years, when the total number of people may exceed 9 billion. That's a lot of people, and if we project their "carbon footprint," it spells global disaster. Indeed, at our current level of 7 billion, we have already lit the fuse on the global warming time bomb.

And so our concern about overpopulation has come full circle. Or perhaps a spiral would be a better image. Starting in the 1950s, the West worried about overpopulation and mass starvation in Africa and Asia. Along comes the "green revolution" and food supplies increase dramatically while Third World birth rates begin to decline. Perhaps someone, somewhere, breathed a sigh of relief. But wait, the West becomes consumed by a new problem--birth rates throughout Europe and even in the United States begin to fall below replacement rate. Ditto for Singapore and Japan. Same for China. Now there is a new worry: too few young people and too many old people. This could lead to economic decline and social upheaval. Women seem to be going on strike (and Goldberg has a fascinating chapter on the "Birth Strike.")

But wait. China, despite its population controls, has grown to be the biggest polluter in the world. It accounts for almost 24% of CO2 emissions. The US accounts for 18%, the European Union for 14%. (Wikipedia, based on UN estimates, "List of Countries by Carbon Dioxide Emissions")

Goldberg's book, published in 2009, does not tackle the interplay between economic growth and global pollution. Nor does it address concerns about declining resources, especially water.

If she did, would the "birth strike" seem like a rational response to imminent danger? Is global de-population a policy to be pursued? I don't know, and I doubt that Goldberg knows. But what she does know seems still true and right: If we want a better world, the empowerment of women is a top priority. And since we men have lately been making quite a mess of things, perhaps women's empowerment--across the board--is the top priority.
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on July 1, 2009
This is an excellent and important book. When people think grandly about politics, women's rights often get short shrift -- if they get any shrift at all. But Michelle Goldberg argues persuasively, with thorough research and many great anecdotes, that a successful fight for women's reproductive rights would solve both over- and underpopulation -- that, in addition to being the right thing to do, winning that battle is also crucial to humanity's future.
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