Deja Vu: Old is New Again

"We have to put the woman and the girl really at the center." - Melinda Gates in Strings Attached (2019)

Once upon a time, it was the white man’s burden to pretend to care spiritually and materially for the starving millions in China, India and Africa. The natives, or those who survived slavery and the associated genocide, didn’t always appreciate the effort: “When the white man came, we had the land and he had God. Now we have God and he has the land.”

It falls to later generations to make amends. Or does it? Not quite restitution or reparation, but—an effort. What is the responsility of colonial nations to the people whose lives they murderously disrupted in the single-minded (and still commonplace) pursuit of profit—from gold and other natural resources to, most outragrageously, human trafficking? What about the guilt inherited among the colonizers themselves, their sense of moral responsibility?

Some progress has undoubtedly been made, but it’s hardly been smooth. The imperial imperative is far from eradicated, and do-gooder NGOs often come with a familiar righteousness and the arrogance of wealth. And what about the unexamined belief that “he who pays the piper, calls the tune”?

This is the background to and context of Strings Attached (2019), a documentary streaming via a global media platform on an ecologically challenged device near you. Strings Attached is no Marxist critique of contemporary aid to developing countries. But it does have an agenda. Spoiler alert! It’s anti-abortion.

Over the years, sections of the antichoice movement have shown themselves adept at appropriating the language and concepts of feminism. Thus, the oxymoron “anti-abortion feminists,” which has been in circulation since Roe was (temporarily) decided.

Strings Attached is singing from this playbook, feigning a convincing concern for women and justice. Here we the audience are invited to conclude that women in developing countries are being recolonized by purveyors of Western-style reproductive empowerment—that is, the language of colonialism is being repurposed and applied to initiatives aimed at improving women’s sexual health. One commentator refers to “ideological colonization,” and lobbying for repeal of anti-abortion law is described as a form of “colonial intervention.”

Surprisingly, despite this spin, the otherwise sophisticated production is no more than old wine in a new bottle. All the tired tropes are here: family planning providers are only interested in the cash to be had from international donors and desperate locals; Marie Stopes (who died in 1958) was “a notorious eugenicist” (this presumably intended as a calculated flash point for postcolonial peoples); Marie Stopes International (MSI) has no respect for the law (providing abortion in countries where it’s illegal); etc. So determined are the producers to slime MSI that they resort to comparing its abortion totals unfavorably with those of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF)!

We’ve heard these songs before, most recently in late 20th-century Ireland, where the statement, “Catholic women have been rightly taught by the church that the contraceptive drug and device is inherently divisive,” could well have originated. (Actually, what the Irish farmer said on radio is, “Putting your wife on contraceptives is like driving a tractor through slurry.” I kid you not.) The present quote is from an Open Letter to Melinda Gates by the Nigerian anti-abortion activist Obianuju Ekeocha.

Ekeocha is our polished host and executive producer of Strings Attached. She opens the film with lines from the late Chinua Achebe, signaling her cultural gravitas as a true daughter of Africa. The documentary is a tool in her activism, the route to an international audience. She is undoubtedly a star, a “devout Catholic,” in the words of one admirer. We might imagine Phyllis Schlafly being—maternally?—proud of her. Like Schlafly, a constitutional lawyer, she’s a highly educated and well-traveled professional woozy about a fate she’s escaped through her own (unquestioned) agency. “Even with substandard medical care in most places, women are valiant in pregnancy,” she writes to Gates, notwithstanding that she herself chooses not to live in Africa. “And once the baby arrives, they gracefully and heroically rise into the maternal mode.”

Who needs self-determination when we women can be spoken for so glowingly?

Melinda Gates begs to differ. “We have to put the woman and the girl really at the center [of this initiative],” she tells an interviewer. It’s an “elite” proposition Obianuju Ekeocha finds offensive. “I see this $4.6 billion buying us misery,” her letter continues. “I see it buying us unfaithful husbands. I see it buying us streets devoid of the innocent chatter of children. I see it buying us disease and untimely death. I see it buying us a retirement without the tender loving care of our children.” Has fearmongering in service of denying women’s agency ever worn such a plausible face or spoken in such a firmly gentle, or gently firm, voice?

Weary message, new presentation.

Gates, meanwhile, in launching her initiative, said, “These will be programs built from the county up.” This strikingly collaborative model finds no echo in Strings Attached, where the emphasis is on patriarchal authority (in the persona of the pope and, especially, the divisive encyclical Humane Vitae) and women’s “humility” in the traditional maternal role. We know “humility” for its dishonorable history as a synonym for women shutting up and putting up with gender abuse. Thus, Obianuju Ekeocha’s dog whistle: “Funny how people with a much lower literacy level could clearly understand that which the average Vogue– and Cosmo-reading high-class woman has refused to understand. I guess humility makes all the difference.”

For this viewer, one of the possibly unintended experiences of watching Strings Attached is about examining the unconscious focus it puts on perspective. For example, one hoary strategy employed here features recordings of bogus callers to MSI whose interactions are played back on film. Viewers are supposed to be shocked, horrified. This viewer—no stranger to ill-will calls from anti-abortion activists—couldn’t find fault with Marie Stopes telephone personnel, no more than I could find anything objectionable in the remarks of European politicians, overwhelmingly women, raising government donations to replace funding lost via the US “global gag rule.”

It depends on your point of view. Are we the audience with the women seeking abortion, wherever they may be? Do we applaud the response of powerful women seeking to share their resources? Our stance, our values, will predetermine whether we find scandal here or not. Strings Attached does not invite dialog.

More serious are the charges of misrepresentation and exploitation made against MSI, which, if true as witnessed here, would surely result in criminal liability at both national and international levels. These are stories crying out for inspection and redress that never materialize. How can this be? Further, in a classic example of responsibility-transfer, one woman’s broken marriage is blamed on her awful contraception experience, not on her husand’s (apparently justifiable!) infidelity. In common with the Irish farmer’s outlook, it’s seen as understandable that a husband would beat a wife who has lost her libido, even if this symptom arises from a medical, not an adulterous, cause. We hear no talk of curbing the behavior. Instead, the usual targets are identified (IUDs and Norplant, and, of course, “postabortion stress syndrome”), and there’s a suggestion that Big Pharma is dumping unwanted drugs on Africa. Another charge worth serious investigation.

Serious investigation is not what we get here. Rather, we’re treated to the casting of women as victims without recourse amid unprosecuted allegations of what we are invited to construe as (possibly malicious, certainly rapacious) medical malpractice. One medical doctor claims to see 100 patients in a week, women complaining of side effects of which they claim they were not warned. Even as we weep for them, we have to ask: Why hasn’t Doctor Anthony alerted the authorities? We don’t know, he isn’t asked. One clue may be the wholly anecdotal nature of his comments.

What about the very real dangers posed by back alley abortions? Only in the last 15 minutes do we even hear the word, to have it disappear again in another onsaught of stale complaints about MSI. The producers position abortion and contraception provision in any setting, legal or illegal, as outside African cultural norms and wants. Norms that are recognizably hostile to women’s agency.

A final, possibly unintended insight refers again to those powerful European women rallying to fund family planning on the former dark continent. Could it be that the current US president’s animus towards the European Union, including the UK (Brexit or no), derives from finding another opportunity here to pander to his anti-abortion base? Certainly, as support in Europe for the Gates family planning initiative is shown to be committed and on the rise, we may infer, from a tacit feminism. Similarly, the Canadians under Justin Trudeau’s leadership. It’s enough to animate the American right.1

In his play, and later movie, The History Boys, one of Alan Bennett’s characters memorably summarizes history as “one damn thing after another.” To which we might add, “only with different costumes.” Strings Attached brings us the same old story, but with much more colorful costuming. Plus ça change. Reparations will have to wait.

 

  1.  Something of a corrective to this toxic messaging appears in the current issue of the journal Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters, which envisions: “A world where positive intersections between sexual health, sexual rights and sexual pleasure are reinforced in law, in programming and in advocacy, can strengthen health, wellbeing and the lived experience of people everywhere.” Where do I sign?

Ruth Riddick led a successful appeal at the European Court of Human Rights against Ireland's restriction on information about extra-territorial legal abortion (Open Door Counselling, 1992), resulting in Irish constitutional and legal reform. Her polemic on "women's right to choose" is featured in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. She is a regular contributor to Conscience, usually writing on film and the arts.

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