Germaine Greer, the high-profile Australian feminist, has a new book – Sex and Destiny: the Politics of Human Fertility. It has caused the kind of media publicity which puts a gleam in the eye of the publisher.
Her media interviews have confirmed her reputation for fearless outspokenness, for she refers crudely to parts of the female anatomy. Most reviewers and critics of her books have viewed her current writing as anti-feminist.
In her 1970 radical feminist “bible,” The Female Eunuch, Greer argued that women were symbolically castrated by men, who refused to allow equality by keeping them barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. That was a popular theme of feminist writing in the 60s and 70s. Now, fourteen years later, Greer says that women have been harmed by the sexual revolution, and presents this as a great discovery.
She has discovered that Western society hates children. We have institutionalized childbirth, so that it becomes a feat of endurance in the hospital instead of a relaxed enjoyable event at home: we isolate mothers and children in the nuclear-family suburban home; we suffer from “an inability to enjoy our children.” She describes, in much depth:
Societies where adults and children laugh at the same jokes, where adults would not dream of eating their evening meal without their children about them and would not inhibit discussion of serious matters because children were present. In fact such societies are still more populous than our own. There are huge cities which are practically run by children, children who support their parents and their brethren by their skills and initiative, where children and adults inhabit the same cruel world and survive by clinging to each other. But these are societies whose children, we think, should not be born.
Documenting the cultures in which children are highly valued leads Greer into an attack on contraception, particularly the contraception forced on parents in the third world. Greer states that the intrauterine device (IUD) transforms the uterus “into a poisonous abattoir,” nails it as an abortifacient, and goes on to document the machinations of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and U.S. AID in the third world. She says that the IUD has all but faded out from third-world family planning programmes; although, she states, “Even now family planners discuss the desirability of supplying ignorant women with IUDs without strings so that neither they, nor their husbands, nor the village midwives can remove the devices.”
Such other methods of artificial contraception as the birth-control pill, the morning-after pill, and Depo-Provera injections, are also fully examined. Explaining the ways in which these chemicals work, and certainly not glossing over the hazardous side-effects, Greer is mainly concerned with the immorality of forcing such chemicals on naïve people. Her attitude seems to be that Western women should be sufficiently informed as to make their own decisions. One hopes that many Western women will read her book to get information on contraception; as she explains, “IUD insertion as pre-emptive abortion is now routinely practiced at the Marie Stopes Memorial Clinic and at Pregnancy Advisory Services clinics in London.”
What she seems to want is for the West to butt out of the third world and leave them to work out their own fertility management. In her chapter, “Chastity is a form of birth control” (which, along with her approval of the practice of coitus interruptus, has aroused the most feminist ire), she documents the many cultures which limit their periods of sexual activity. Many societies encourage late marriages, with no sexual activity outside of marriage; in many others, mothers breastfeed their babies for long periods of time, thus inhibiting the return to ovulation.
Apparently, Greer is more interested in attacking the drug companies, International Planned Parenthood agencies, and the U.S. government (which rightly deserve many sustained attacks) than she is in suggesting ways in which all can be helped, if they want, to practice ethical family planning.
Natural family planning methods receive scant attention – less than one page. She says,
The chief objection to the rhythm method that I hear in my travels around university campuses is that it does not work. What this generally means is that my respondents could not work it. They did not know when they were fertile and they were not motivated sufficiently strongly to find out.
Start with schoolgirls
Undeniably true, of course; but why does she not explain the methodology of Natural Family Planning (NFP), rather than merely going on to say, “the perennial attempts to teach ways of telling [how to interpret fertile cycles] become more sophisticated each year”? Drs. John and Evelyn Billings’ work is discussed this way: “the Billings method is one of the many descendants of Ogino and Knaus, via John Marshall, deviser of the muco-thermic method.”
She goes on to state,
It would be as well perhaps to start with girls in school, in their biology classes, to teach them the cycle as subjectively perceived, and have them keep practical books of readings and so forth, so that they could learn the structure of their endocrine rhythm before there was anxiety attached to the possibility of making a mistake. If the Catholic Church was really serious about taking a stand on the issue of artificial limitation this would already be done in catholic girls’ schools.
Again, this is true enough but appears merely as a gratuitous attack on Catholic thinking instead of constructive criticism. Ms. Greer should have paid more attention to the speeches of Pope John II on the subject of NFP, something he talks about (ad nauseam to some people’s taste). She could also have spent a highly productive time in the company of such as the Drs. Billings, Mother Teresa, Father Paul Marx, to name just four of the people successfully teaching NFP in the third world – and in the West to those who care to listen.
While to some feminists Sex and Destiny may seem to be a denial of feminine ideals, it is probably nearer the truth to see it as the newest logical development of “feminist theology.” Betty Friedan, another high priestess of the movement, certainly advanced her philosophy in her 1981 book, The Second Stage. In that book, Friedan tried to bring back into the feminist fold those women who had been alienated by the movement’s denial of the experience of motherhood.
Unfortunately, Greer, Friedan et al., have a long way to travel; they still believe abortion is a woman’s right (they pay no attention to the rights of the father or of the unborn). However, there may be hope: they will probably write other books. Greer now sees artificial contraception as an evil, in that it often has appalling effects on women, albeit her current concern is for peasant women who are presumed to know no better.
My criticism here is not to deny my own concern for third-world women; I am equally concerned about Western women who accept artificial contraception without appropriate guidelines. Greer intimates that opposition to abortion comes only from Catholics (her schooling was at a convent, her parents seem to have been less than ideal, and I cannot find a reference to whether or not Greer herself is a Catholic), and often refers to Catholic theology in a derogatory ways.
It is an outdated myth that opposition to abortion, only comes from the Catholic Church hierarchy. It is most unfortunate that many still see the link between contraception and abortion as “a Catholic hang-up.” I will discuss Greer’s attitude toward abortion in my next column.