Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility by Germaine Greer - review by John Lahr

John Lahr

Renegade Brilliance

Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility


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‘I finally had an orgasm but my doctor told me it was the wrong kind’. Woody Allen’s joke in Manhattan typifies the delirium of Western industrial societies over their own sexual pleasure which is at the core of the race suicide that Germaine Greer’s brilliant polemic explores. ‘Modern man is profoundly religious’, she writes of sex as the new opiate of the people. ‘But his religion is no longer centred upon the propitiation of heavenly or infernal powers, rather … in his propitiation of himself.’ Unable to sacrifice himself to God, man sacrifices other people to himself. In Greer’s book, it is clear that children – and especially the future children of the poor – are being sacrificed to ‘the new Saviour of family planning circles, the Small Family Norm’. Greer challenges the barbarity of crypto-eugenics behind family planning and the myth of overpopulation; arguing with poignant clarity that it is not the fecund poor but the rich who are the real threat to civilisation.

In the West, the prestige of the child has declined in proportion to the rise of the appeal of consumerism. ‘The state’s institutionalised desire for children is obviously a desire for productive adults’, Greer writes; but the adults choose to limit their offspring or refuse to breed at all in order to enjoy the surplus of their consumer society. ‘People who make upon the environment demands so heavy that they become increasingly difficult to satisfy are easily persuaded, by a fall or the threat of a fall in their standard of living, not to reproduce,’ writes Greer. ‘Like the dinosaur they simply outgrow the available resource base.’ Certainly, motherhood is a role that Western society has continued to characterise as ‘marginal’. Ironically, feminist propaganda has helped to create the dilemma which Greer rightly lays more at the feet of male-dominated bureaucracies. The conditions for childbearing are inhospitable and not socially reinforced. Contraceptives and pregnancy-related drugs all have serious effects on female health; and the institutionalisation of childbirth is an isolated and alienating procedure. ‘Hospitals do not encourage competence in giving birth because they do not recognise it, let alone reward it,’ Greer writes incisively. ‘Much of what they routinely do is calculated to diminish the woman’s efficiency.’

My wife’s experience of the medical establishment bears out Greer’s rancour. An elder prima-gravida (at thirty-one), she insisted on having her first child at home, with our extended family present. She finally managed to find a female doctor and a midwife who would attend her; but only after having to run the gauntlet of unsympathetic male doctors, one of whom told her: ‘What am I going to say at the inquest?’

In its triumph over some illnesses, Western medicine has also eliminated much of what is sacramental in bringing new life into the world. Man’s species function is to reproduce his kind; and the refusal to do so is a barometer of society’s own insecurity about its future and its soullessness. ‘People who feel they have no future are not likely to raise the necessary zeal for child-raising,’ Greer writes, pointing out that the other side of helplessness is untrammelled fertility. In the West, encouraged by the disincentives of the State, population declines; in the Third World it grows. Greer argues that the only way to convince the Third World to destroy their fertility is to guarantee a future for the children who live. And this they cannot do. Behind the rhetoric of family planning is a harder political reality: the balance of world power is shifting and the rich West will try (and fail) to maintain their technological supremacy in order to preserve both their markets and their political influence. Greer dubs these governments ‘gerontocracies’ and predicts that they will become ‘more authoritarian, more secretive and more militaristic’. The West’s conviction that it must do something to control world population, whether people want it or not, reflects the myopia of cultural imperialism that insists the future belongs to the West.

Sterilisation has become a fashionable obsession. Seventy-five million women so far have been sterilised, nine million of these in the USA. ‘Voluntary sterilization … is the abandonment of one’s own fertility and a regression to child status,’ Greer writes. Sterilisation dooms Third World families whose living children die before they reach maturity to an uncertain future. Without children to care for them in the extended family arrangements of Third World communities, the future of the aged is jeopardised. And there are other ironies in the situation. ‘What happens to a sterilized wife whose baby dies? Her husband casts her off … Nowadays the poor man can oppress the poor woman … and the authorities rush to help him.’ The abuses of family planning programmes are superbly outlined in a chapter on Government as Family Planner. State incentives to bureaucrats to deliver people for sterilisation in India led, in some extreme cases, to buses being diverted to sterilisation camps and people forcibly taken from villages. Besides such sensational incidents, there were the routine incentives for the Department of Health, whereby employees could be docked pay or even dismissed if the numbers of those willing to be sterilised weren’t satisfactory.

Not far beneath the family planning rhetoric is the eugenic dream of improving the racial strain by eliminating from society those that are the poorest. ‘It is an interesting fact that as soon as universal compulsory fertility regulation is accepted in principle, some notion of positive eugenics follows,’ Greer writes. ‘The people who will win increased reproductive opportunity will be those who are successful, i.e. the ruling elite.’ Greer, who knows that the poor aren’t born but made, sees eugenics as barbarous racist folly. ‘Instead of seeing poverty and starvation and overcrowding in the developing world,’ she writes of the family planners, ‘they saw overpopulation.’ ‘Fertility control’ is just that – the control of the lower orders by the higher. In America, of the women sterilised in federally funded programmes, 43 percent were black; 20 percent of black married women were sterilised and only 6 percent of whites. Greer quotes sources claiming that one quarter of the Native American population has been sterilised. The concept of the ‘worthless individual’ which is part of the eugenics notion is anathema to anyone, like Greer, with a global outlook; and it underlies the fallacy of entrepreneurial capitalism (whose captains of industry fund so much of the worldwide family planning) which mythologies individual effort and measures status by the division between people. Individual glory, in fact, depends on the separation of one person from another. Although Greer is staunchly (and sometimes hysterically) non-religious, she is arguing both for the sacramental in man’s relationship to birth and to children; and in the commonality of humanity. Her elaboration of the eugenics debate (Professor Julian Huxley: ‘What are people for?’), the power struggles between those ‘radicals of the right’ Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger, and the emergence of these ideas in the crypto-eugenic policy in government family planning, is fascinating and persuasive.

Greer’s renegade intelligence is valuable because it thinks against the orthodoxies. It is not over-population but over-pauperisation from which the world suffers, and for which the industrial economies are to blame. ‘Whether we believe that the world is overpopulated or not depends to some extent on how we think people should live,’ she says. There is certainly enough food if the West was committed to sharing it, but it isn’t. The poor starve while producing cash crops for the industrial West. (And the West, in turn, undermines land reform programmes which would allow the poor to feed themselves.) This poverty is the inheritance of colonialism which continues to strip away wealth from the Third World while wasting people in the same vast quantities that it wastes its own resources. ‘The poor countries are getting poorer; the poor in those countries are getting poorer still,’ writes Greer. ‘Their share of world trade diminishes and not because their population eats up their iron ore and their bauxite and their bananas and their sugar.’ Greer’s articulate rage is directed not just at the fantasy that the West ‘shares’ its surplus with the Third World; but at the blinkered assumptions in the overpopulation argument which blithely proposes that Third World communities limit fertility while having no allegiance to children in their own. The real ecological disaster is not starvation, but man himself. ‘We are the crisis’, Greer says, pleading for a change in the nature of the debate at the end of her book.

The goal of Sex and Destiny is to raise questions about the politics of fertility and to goad the West out of its destructive ethnocentricity. With great verve and intellectual courage, Germaine Greer makes the global perspective irresistible.

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