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Contraception is a human right, not a tool for population control

Protecting reproductive rights is about helping women assume the control they are entitled to.  

Right now, all around the world, women are having sex.

Some are on the pill. Others can fish condoms from a drawer. But too many women, especially in developing countries, are still denied their basic human right to choose if, when, and how many children to have. 

On 11 July, World Population Day, health organisations and heads of state will gather in London at the 2017 Family Planning Summit to assess progress toward increasing access to family planning for women and girls around the globe. As the day nears, we should remind ourselves that protecting women’s reproductive rights is not about curbing population, easing resource burdens, cutting carbon emissions or bolstering conservation efforts. It’s about helping women assume the control they are entitled to.  

Remarkably, not everyone agrees. Author Eugene Linden’s op-ed, Remember the Population Bomb? It’s Still Ticking, exemplifies a dangerous and persistent type of population alarmism that sees birth control not as a right, but as a way to stem “rising tides of people” fleeing environmentally ravaged countries and banging on the West’s gates. Forget colonialism, structural adjustment, racism, AIDS. For struggling countries like Lesotho, in Linden’s view, the “biggest problem probably was, and is, the obvious: too many people.” Less explicit, but no less noxious, is the growing narrative that empowering women and girls is one of the most cost-effective ways to solve the climate crisis: when women are empowered, they have fewer children, and fewer children means fewer emissions.

This is an old and fatuous argument. Casting family planning in developing countries as a solution to resource stress, migration, or rising carbon emissions not only unfairly pins blame for these crises on poor women, it also misdiagnoses the problem. It’s not population numbers, but global inequalities -- in resource consumption, health care access, political power, etc. -- that determine which countries are flush, and which lack enough to go around.

Rich countries suck up the most resources and spew out the most climate-warming greenhouse gases. From 1980 to 2005, wealthy nations accounted for 29.1 per cent of emissions but just 7.2 per cent of population growth. Poor nations, on the other hand, accounted for 52.1 per cent of population growth but just 12.8 per cent of emissions. Overconsumption of carbon-intensive products, largely by industrialized nations, drives climate change and its effects, not high fertility rates in developing countries. 

In fact, high fertility rates reflect the same imbalances in resources and power that allow climate change to trace such an uneven pattern of destruction across the globe. Just as global inequalities saddle developing nations with the costs of climate change, gender inequality and uneven access to information and contraceptives deny women and girls across the world control over their own fertility.

But if population alarmism helps poor women access contraception, is it so bad?

When people say “overpopulation” is going to destroy the planet, what they mean is poor people are making it harder for wealthy people to live the lives they've come to feel they deserve. When we blame women’s fertility for resource scarcity or climate change, we turn our attention away from these glaring inequalities. And we allow people and governments with the most power to shirk responsibility for addressing climate change, food insecurity, and other environmental crises.

Moreover, framing access to contraception as a means to any end, no matter how noble, is dangerous. It ignores the fact that reproductive choice is a basic right, and it risks recasting women’s bodies as tools for solving problems they did not cause. Just as entrenched inequalities determine “who eats first and who eats worst", who lives in the world’s most dangerous places, and who calls 5th Avenue home, it determines who can decide whether, when and how many children to have. Unless we challenge these inequalities, poor people will remain just as vulnerable to the devastating effects of poverty and climate change as they are now, and they will not have enough food to feed their families, no matter how large or small.

So, instead of wringing our hands about “overpopulation”, let’s attack the inequalities that sustain poverty and drive migration, climate change and high fertility. But let’s do it without shifting responsibility to the poor, and without undermining women’s rights to reproductive self-determination.

At CARE, our work in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, shows that it is possible to fulfill those rights for women and girls even in some of the most difficult regions of the world. There, CARE has helped the government train providers on high quality family planning counseling and services, including youth-friendly service provision. This has resulted in dramatic increases in access to and use of modern contraception. Our common cause is in working to expand equality and freedom for women and girls no matter where they live, so let’s join forces to rid the planet of the injustices that are the true threat to all of our futures.  Because if women and girls in poor communities around the world have equitable access to education, resources, and political power, and yes - family planning - they might very well change the world.

Christine Galavotti is senior director for sexual and reproductive health and rights at CARE USA and leads CARE’s global work to help 100 million women and girls exercise their rights to sexual, reproductive and maternal health by 2020. Casey Williams is a PhD student in literature at Duke University and freelance writer.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.