Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obama and Biopolitics: The Malthusian Couple/Family Planning Thread

Elections matter. On 23 January 2009, President Obama signed a presidential memorandum authorizing USAID and State Department to fund NGOs that may use "non USAID funds to engage in a wide range of activities, including providing advise, counseling, or information regarding abortion or lobbying a foreign government to legalize or make abortion available." By lifting the "gag rule," Obama revokes President George Bush's (43) re-instatement of Reagan's Mexico City policy and Bush's extension of those policies. This memorandum places the Obama administration back within the Cairo Consensus in international population policy. The Clinton Administration was a major force in the constitution of the Cairo Consensus. The Cairo Consensus advanced women's empowerment and reproductive health as the cornerstone of population policy.

Obama's memorandum argues Bush era restrictions were "excessively broad" and "undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family planning programs." The White House released a statement pledging to "restore critical efforts to protect and empower women and promote global economic development" and to work "with Congress to restore U.S. financial support for the U.N Population Fund."

The White House Statement also commented on the state of the debate on family planning assistance arguing it had become a "political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us" and that the President has "no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate." The statement declares "it is time that we end the politicization of this issue." Of course, the New York Times framed the issue exactly in the terms of the "stale and fruitless debate" over abortion.

I would like to know more about what Obama thinks makes a debate "stale and fruitless," though I suspect it has something to do with what Tribe called the Clash of Absolutes (though dated, I should re-read the last two chapters of Tribe's book). Obama believes that he can bypass incommensurability by finding a new point of agreement. In this case, he hopes to get all sides to work together to "achieve the goal of reducing unintended pregnancies." This pragmatic goal will be the shared agreement he hopes will "initiate a fresh conversation on family planning , working to find areas of common ground to best meet the needs of women and families at home and around the world."

We look forward to the new conversation, but, respectfully note that the women's empowerment agenda embraced by the Cairo Consensus does not go unchallenged (see, Greene 2000) and those challenges are not about abortion politics, but about how the focus on women's empowerment to decrease unintended pregnancies does not get at the heart of the economic, social or cultural inequalities built into population/development policy.

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