Academic journal article New Formations

In the Name of Reproductive Rights: Race, Neoliberalism and the Embodied Violence of Population Policies

Academic journal article New Formations

In the Name of Reproductive Rights: Race, Neoliberalism and the Embodied Violence of Population Policies

Article excerpt

The now dominant post-MDGs approach to population questions has been some time in the making. A key turning point was the 2012 London Family Planning Summit hosted by the British government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on July 11, World Population Day. Along with USAID, UNFPA and other international organisations, the hosts announced a $2.6 billion family planning strategy, 'FP 2020', to get 120 million more girls and women in the poorest countries to use 'voluntary family planning' by 2020.The strategy relies heavily on the mass promotion of long acting hormonal injectable and implantable contraceptives, in particular Depo-Provera, Implanon and Norplant II or Jadelle (produced by pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, Merck and Bayer respectively) all of which have faced sustained opposition from reproductive health activists, who argue that rather than giving poor women in the Global South much needed access to safe contraception they can control, these approaches potentially further undermine women's health and control over their bodies.1 The agenda-setting role of the Gates Foundation,2 which was instrumental in influencing Britain to take the lead on population issues reflects the increasingly direct role of corporates in global development interventions.3 With the re-imposition and extension by US President Donald Trump of the 'global gag rule' blocking US government aid to any organisation involved in abortion advice and care overseas in 2016, reliance on the Gates Foundation as a donor in the field of reproductive health has inevitably increased further, and its fundamental conflation of questions of population growth with those of women's access to contraception is, I suggest, therefore particularly concerning.

Like earlier versions dating back to Malthus, contemporary dominant approaches to population can be characterised as shifting responsibility for poverty away from capital and onto the poor themselves. Population growth in the Global South continues to be linked to climate change, at the expense of attention to the role of corporate capital, in dominant discourse around the Sustainable Development Goals. 4 Given the inescapable fact that, as Betsy Hartmann notes 'The few countries in the world where population growth rates remain high, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, have among the lowest carbon emissions per capita',5 population agencies have begun to argue that 'family planning is a vital component of climate change adaptation rather than mitigation in Africa'.6

Similarly, population growth in the Global South is held responsible for escalating food crises associated with the expansion of corporate agriculture.7 Like the earlier versions, today's population discourse insists that current economic relationships and structures of power do not need to be changed. In particular, it is not predicated on any reversal of the drastic reduction in health spending which characterises neoliberal policies promoted by the World Bank and the IMF. On the contrary, as we will see, reducing population growth is actively promoted on the basis of its predicted role in limiting the need for future social spending.

But the renewed emphasis on fertility reduction is not only geared towards shifting attention away from global capital's responsibility for poverty, climate change and food crises. Central to the strategy of which the return of population control is a part, is the intensification of women's labour, with responsibility for household survival increasingly feminised, and more and more women incorporated into global value chains dominated by transnational corporations. It is this drive to intensify and incorporate the labour of women in poor households in the Global South which fuels the appropriation and transformation of feminist ideas of gender equality, and specifically that of reproductive rights, an approach which is epitomised by the now ubiquitous slogan of 'investing in women'.

The route by which population policy came to embrace the language of reproductive rights is complex however, and one which we will briefly trace here. …

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