Monday, July 1, 2013

Like a Bad Penny: Mary Ann Glendon Returns

Who is Mary Ann Glendon?  Apparently the Vatican has appointed her to the committee to discover just how bad Vatican corruption is.  Wonder how she will do? At any rate--does this refresh your memory?

I am writing to take issue with today's op ed piece by Mary Ann Glendon and Mary Haynes (Putting Fertility First" NYT Wednesday, October 20th, 1999).  Although Glendon is identified as "a law professor at Harvard University" she is both more and less than that.  She is a well known anti-abortion advocate and has served the Catholic church as a "point woman" on this and related topics for many years.  Her handling of "facts" relating to women, fertility, birth control is, and always has been, entirely structured by her ideological presuppositions (viz. her book Abortion in Western Law)  In this case, she and her coauthor argue, in a round about way, that population control is so undesirable from the point of view of individual families that it can only be achieved through a massively coercive, top down, approach.  If you don't know who Glendon is, you might wonder where she is going with this argument, as the piece is written in a very detached and pseudo objective style.  If you do know who Glendon is it becomes clear that when she says that "purely voluntary programs will do little to reduce fertility" she is arguing that if you don't want to see some kind of fertility police forcing contraception on an unwilling world  there is nothing left but to follow the Catholic Church's teachings on this matter, ignore population as a problem, and stop promoting contraceptive use.  Of course, the data and the conclusions drawn from it  are wholly flawed.  For example, they present information on the number of people who "know where to obtain contraceptives" and assume that that matches the number of people who can obtain them (are not prevented by finances, family pressure, church pressure).  If people "know where to obtain contraceptives" but don't, they say, there is no point continuing to offer them since people must not want them.  In fact, they say darkly "helping parents achieve their desired family size would result in higher birth rates."
    There is so much that is wrong in this short piece that it is hard to know where to begin.  First, Glendon and Haynes move rapidly and vaguely among categories: sometimes the data they quote pertain to families, sometimes to individual women.  If we have learned anything by this time it is that the interests of men, women, and families are quite distinct.  For one thing, it is not necessary when speaking of contraception to speak solely of "the married couple" or "parents."  The "family" model that the article rests on, in which families are assumed to have a single, definable goal number of children, does not reflect the real world conditions under which contraceptive decisions are made.  The father of children in a polygynous society does not have the same interest in the number of offspring of any one marriage that any one of his individual wives has and quite possibly no interest at all in contraception.  That is not necessarily true of his wife, and it is almost certainly not true of his children.  Even if we speak only of families as units and of all people as "parents to be" it is only trivially true that, in some sense, "fertility levels in developing countries rest...on the number of children desired by parents."   The number of children parents desire at any one time is not a constant, and it does not need to remain high.  Years of research on places like Kerala have made it plain that educating women, providing off farm employment to them, and subsidizing education and health care for their children rapidly reduces fertility rates.  Contraception, under this model, is not the end but a means to an end: delayed fertility, spacing of births, better maternal and child health.  To say that "for better of worse, the status of women in many societies still rests on their success in childbearing" is a cop out of the worst kind: it is ahistorical, it is weak and it is incorrect.  The status of women in all societies rests on a wide variety of cultural practices, all of which are malleable.  If the Catholic church spent as much money on women's education as it spends seeding puff pieces like Glendon's we would see how quickly and voluntarily women themselves would be able to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies from which they currently suffer.

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