Targets of Population Control: Latin America

Article excerpt

Latin America

(Translated and excerpted from "Introduccion," by Ana Maria Portugal in "Poblacion: Hablan las Mujeres," Especial Mujer/Fempress, Latin American feminist periodical, Chile, 1993.)

Global food and population policies over the past 40 years have perhaps done more harm than good. Attempts to end world poverty through agricultural "Green Revolution"-type programs have left the land dessicated and people worse off than before. World Bank funding of a dam project in India has flooded vast acres of previously productive land. Countries of the South might well provide for themselves if it were not for the growing of export crops and dependence fostered by aid programs. With equal disrespect, global population strategies view land and women as policy instruments, tools to reach the specified goal. A global, feminist envisioning of alternatives is the only equitable solution to the issues of population growth.

The theme of population control is nettlesome. It has the dubious privilege of having polarized debate on our continent, upsetting the delicate balance of government reasoning, and putting segments of politics, the churches, feminism, and the medical profession into an awkward position in protest actions directed at a very precise target: "Yankee Imperialism."

The decade of the 1950s was very sad for this region because of what happened in Puerto Rico. On that island, an experimental program to test the first contraceptive pill utilized hundreds of women as "guinea pigs." Discovered by scientist Gregory Pincus in the 1940s in North America, the Pill, at that time, contained a dosage three times stronger than necessary, which aggravated the fact that the women were neither informed of the side effects, nor that they were part of an experiment. These facts unleashed a strong opposition movement that had repercussions all over the continent.

Somewhat later, through the film Yawar Malku--a short documentary--Bolivia came to embody the most inflamed battles against population control. Yawar Malku, which in the Aymara language means "Blood of the Condor," was filmed in 1968 by Jorge Sanjines. It condemned the practice of forced sterilizations of indigenous women by health teams with suspected ties to the Peace Corps. As a result of the condemnation, which was heard around the world, the government of then-President Torres expelled that North American organization.

Afterwards, similar cases reinforced the coercive and anti-democratic nature of certain population policies, contributing to the seeming misunderstandings and general lack of confidence in international cooperation. This served to impede finding the true dimensions of the demographic problem. Nevertheless, today the debate over whether it is, or is not, valid to control births for demographic purposes has become even more complicated. The World Conference on Population in 1974, in bucharest, saw many countries entangled in an apprehensive rhetoric. A decade later, a new World Conference on Population took place in Mexico, where a document was drawn up to establish, among other things, that "there is an inextricable link between population, resources, environment and development." At that moment, the visibility of the women's movement, especially around concerns of reproductive rights, became a decisive factor in the outcome of the Conference. Quickly the slogan, "No to Population Control: Women Decide!" became the focal point of the movement--in response as much to the abuses of the past as to the effects of certain birth control policies imposed by the sexist and purely quantitative attitudes of the 1980s. Actually, the debate between feminism and the medical, governmental, scientific and political "establishment" over whether or not there ought to be explicit government population policies has intensified, and already within the movement there are currents of opinion that believe that women's concerns do not extend beyond the right of "choice," just as there are those who insist that feminists must take up the challenge of creating an alternative to govermental population policies: a "feminist" population politics.

Today women concerned with reproductive rights and health are moving to incorporate a gender perspective into the analysis of population politics. The absence of this perspective has prejudiced, and is prejudicing, a reevaluation of population issues that need to be seen not simply from the point of view of demographics, but also in light of the economic conditions imposed by the dominant neo-liberal development model and the sexual behavior codified in a judeo-hispano-catholic morality based exclusively on heterosexuality. Equally, the lower "status" of women, and differences in class and ethnicity profoundly mark our societies and cannot be ignored.

Essential to this debate there is an irreversible fact: our bodies are the ultimate targets of all planning, whether to increase or decrease population. This crucial, definitive question testifies to the flagrant omission of even the most elemental rights of women as human beings and citizens, as do the continuation of discriminatory laws and the absence of health policies, especially around reproductive health. Along with this, the criminalization of abortion endangers the health and life of thousands of women whose bodies, in each case, cease to be important within the context of "family planning," which makes room even for adolescent girls and single women. These are the real points of the debate.

Private agencies, as well as governments, are taking into account the errors and stupidity committed in the past by birth control programs. No one wants these programs to fail, but they need to heed the criticism, in this case, from the women's health movement, especially on issues such as the investigation and experimentation with new contraceptive techniques. However, we must also refer to the growth of population today as it is connected to the environmental crisis. Clearly, the earlier visions of population control as a panacea for poverty have become, at this point, obsolete and counterproductive. In the same way, the remedy for avoiding planetary deterioration cannot be found solely through application of massive contraceptive programs. These points of view have the virtue of obsuring, just as in the past, a more complex question: a planetary vision committed to a new concept of civilization--such as what many feminists are now discussing. At the same time, it is not enough to support population equilibrium in order to protect a sane and rational environment, neither is it enough to pit population growth alone against the policies of structural development to end poverty.

It is said that the central problem is not just the number of inhabitants, but their impact on the eco-system and its resources--which are diminishing every day, independent of demographic indices. What will happen with future generations? Certainly control over our bodies--determining how many children we might want and can care for--forms a part of the struggle for reproductive freedom. But up to what point can this right, which pertains to the private dimension ("my body is my own"), come into conflict with societal interests in any given moment? "Autonomy," for itself, has been raised up many times by parts of the movement to create a mystique of Motherhood, to confer power and exclusivity in the face of the masculine world; dispossessing maternity of its social character and contradicting what feminism has always championed: shared responsibility for raising and educating children.

We need to revise the ambivalent feelings that we have about maternity and its weight on our unconscious. Above all, when a great majority of women connect femininity with fertility, we must not forget that maternity continues to be a source of self-esteem and social recognition in a world where women have no access to power. To deny these factors is to ignore the fact that we, too, are subject to those values and beliefs.

These and other points need to be touched on now as we develop an alternative position within the women's movement. This discussion is more pertinent today than ever before, with just a few months until the Latin American Conference on Population and Development and just two years before the UN World Conference on Population in Egypt.