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The Healer Myth

Reproductive Rights

new internationalist
issue 235 - September 1992

The healer myth
Why the North wants to mess about with the sex lives of Southerners.

I put the population and environment issue to a group of therapists. 'Why do we insist on solving the "population problem" over there in the South', I asked, 'when the major problem for global survival lies at home in the North?'

'The healer myth,' was their answer. 'If you want to deny your sickness, you split it off and project it on someone else. Then you can behave like a healer, looking after this other "sick" person.

Applying this to the population issue, we see that the North projects the global environment's sickness onto the South, seeing the crisis as caused by the South's pathological behaviour (uncontrolled population), in order to avoid looking at our own pathological behaviour (uncontrolled economic growth). It's .a potent defence mechanism, which allows us to deny our responsibility.

Taking on the role of healer also allows us to feel powerful and successful in the face of the environmental collapse that is undermining our confidence in our way of life. We turn up with our remedies - our implants, coils and condoms.

'What's more,' said the therapists, 'you can even succeed in apparently curing this sick person. The trouble is, you won't really be curing them; you will only be setting up a deeper cycle of abuse.'

This sounded interesting. Did this apply to population too? If we succeeded in 'curing' the high fertility rates, which we have defined as the problem, it would make us feel a lot better. But of course we would not have cured the root cause of environmental degradation - which is the domination of the planet by the North. Rather, our efforts will only have intensified this domination: for the North will now control not only the fields and factories but even the wombs of the people of the South.

But I don't want to dismiss the contraceptive solution. Why quibble, if the wishes of people from the South and the North appear for once to coincide? It's hard to disagree with the favourite family planning slogans: 'Every child should be a wanted child. Before you be a mother, be a woman. Women shouldn't have babies too young, too old, too often or too close...'

Perhaps family planning could be an offering from the North to the South that's genuinely worth having. The 30 to 50 million induced abortions a year certainly indicate a desire for contraception.

My own experience of family planning, via relaxed country general practitioners in the UK, was reassuring. No-one ever coerced me to stop having children; a range of contraceptive options was explained to me, and the least invasive and risky options offered (including, on occasion, a cheerful 'Don't bother! '). My health was monitored, and when I had bad reactions the treatment was immediately modified. Sterilization was never mentioned.

But I am an affluent woman in the North, and so my fertility is not perceived as an economic or environmental problem. When I wonder whether or not to have a third child, my health, my freedom to work, and how the rest of the family might feel about another baby are the only issues raised. Contraception is merely a means by which I am offered more freedom to choose the life I want to lead; more security that the choice I make will come about.

But would offering me freedom and security still be the motivating factors of contraceptive-suppliers if I were an impoverished woman in the South? Ines Smyth, population researcher, has come to the conclusion that the prime motive of family planning programmes throughout the world is population control. Women have been the targets of family planning initiatives - but their needs and perspectives have been ignored.

She gives as an example the Indonesian Family Planning Programme, where: 'In the early stages... contraceptives were promoted for their health benefits to mothers and children. However, this was an explicitly strategic decision, rather than a reflection of the concerns of the programme. In fact it was felt that this was a more effective way of introducing the programme, since 'people might respond better to the health dimension than to any demographic dimension considerations".1

The cynicism masked by this jargon doesn't stop there. She reports on local authorities who refuse to employ 'non-acceptors' of family planning (or should this be 'of population control'?); sometimes they employ the non-acceptors but delay paying them their wages.

Worse follows: 'Researchers working in different parts of Java relate instances of village leaders dismissed for refusing to use coercive methods towards eligible couples, and incidents of women locked up in the office of the village head to be injected with contraceptives. It is also known that "safari" sterilizations are being sponsored... a police doctor is reported to have performed 185 sterilizations a day.'

And in 1989 Tapol, the Indonesian Human Rights Campaign, made the very serious allegation that schoolgirls in East Timor were being injected with contraceptives without their knowledge.

So does Indonesia provide a particularly poor example of non-coercive family planning? On the contrary, 'It is constantly being cited as a success,' says Smyth, and in 1989 it won the UN's Population Award.

The previous year's winner was China - a country where the slaughter of girl babies is so common that Chen Muhua, one of China's most powerful women, recently Warned that China would have an 'army of bachelors'. John Aird, a senior research specialist in census data, suggests that the international agencies were so eager to reach lowered fertility figures they didn't bother to see how they were achieved.

'Like the intellectuals of the 1930s,' he writes in The Slaughter of the Innocents, 'who admired the apparent efficiency of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, family planning advocates saw their objectives being attained more speedily in China than in developing countries with less centralized governments, and they were inclined to ignore or excuse the cost in human rights and other human values. Lack of concern about violations... is a sign that the international family planning movement has crossed the line from humanitarianism into zealotry.'

In other words, the Northern healers see only a global 'management' problem that needs to be controlled, disconnecting themselves from an empathetic human-to-human awareness of the needs of individual recipients.

Far from increasing a sense of security, such violations of human rights raise enormous anxiety. The coercive sterilization programmes of the 1970s in India are said to have set back family planning programmes for years.

New anxieties are also being raised. For example, Chinese parents of only-children are said to be worried that their spoilt 'little emperors' and 'empresses' will not work hard enough to look after them in their old age. And they will have to work very hard, as there will be so many old people to support and so few young ones to support them. For China will not be able to set up fast enough, nor afford, a state welfare service to look after all these old people, when even the bureaucracies of the rich North - who have had a great deal more time and money to get to grips with the change in their demographic composition - are struggling to support their pensioners.2

In these ways, in the act of 'curing' the supposed problem, the North may instigate deeper cycles of abuse, through the domination of the vulnerable by the powerful. And 'the vulnerable' ultimately includes not only the poorer people of the planet but the planet itself.

1 Ines Smyth, The Indonesian Family Planning Programme, Development and Change (Vol 22 1992)
2 Hazel Henderson, World Paper,( April 1991).

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New Internationalist issue 235 magazine cover This article is from the September 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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