Given my great fondness for books and propensity for writing up lengthy reviews or responses, taking some time to blog a response to Half the Sky really was inevitable. Nicholas Kristof holds the distinction of being one of three living human beings I'm in love with (the other two being Barbara Kingsolver and Michelle Obama- I get along much better with dead people for some reason), so I'd anticipated this book all summer.
It didn't disappoint.
Kristof and WuDunn make their points about brutality without being excessively graphic, making this a book I can recommend to others (unlike, say Sunday at the Pool in Kigali). It's hard to imagine the amount of work that went into this book. Lots of first person interviews and a massive amount of time spent in the library. End notes are respectable, and do a decent job of pointing readers to primary sources. Personally, I had one issue with the end notes- the authors state that studies that evaluate the efficacy of abstinence-only sex ed have widely varying findings that correlate closely with the ideology of the organization conducting the study, but that two trends are clear: abstinence only programs delay initiation of sexual contact, but also result in lower rates of contraceptive/disease preventive practices. The assumption seems intuitive, however, I wish a list of journal articles consulted had been included. That's pretty much just specific to me, as a conservative Evangelical (or, perhaps more accurately: someone who would rather not offend conservative Evangelicals) with a strong interest in reproductive health. I realize I could spend a couple weeks closed up with PubMed and I could figure it out myself, but if someone else has done the work, I'd rather just double check their citations.
This misstep occurred in the chapter I found to be the most personally relevant: "Family Planning and the 'God Gulf'."
WuDunn and Kristof talk coherently about the "gag rule"- which I'd always assumed to be a more or less symbolic action. When Obama overturned it this year I was mildly upset, not being a huge fan of the idea of my tax dollars funding abortions around the world, but honestly, expected nothing else, given his previous abortion rights voting record. After finishing this chapter, and realizing *what* the legislation really meant, my feelings were more along the lines of "Thank God. And I can't believe that one day we're going to elect another Conservative who's going to do this again."
The gag rule meant that organizations like Marie Stopes International and UNFPA lost funding for programs that had nothing to do with abortion- programs that provided clinics and medical personnel to rural corners of developing nations. The "gag rule" meant no American tax dollars going to organizations that as much as mentioned "abortion," but it also meant increased infant and maternal mortality, including more deaths from unsafe abortions around the world. (And personally, I like my tax dollars to keep people alive)
And then, we have HIV prevention and condom use (enter the end note issue above). Authors point out that it was during the Clinton administration when condom donations saw their low point- 190 million in 1999. During the George H.W. Bush administration, this was 800 million condoms a year, and 400 million condoms per year of George W. Bush's 2nd term.
The authors attack some of the foundational misunderstandings about AIDS in Africa, and point out to both sides of the condom/abstinence debate that neither is the program with the greatest numerical success. (If you're curious, dear reader, the most successful program aimed at reducing the number of teenage girls having sex with older men). As an aside- they also agree with my conclusion that abstinence/natural family planning are strategies which depend on women having a status that *allows* them to stand up to their partners. (Further aside-I'm rather scared of what abstinence-only programs are doing to psyches of African girls who are rape victims, especially given how widespread rape in Africa is. I think there are some pretty major ethical issues with the abstinence lollipop "when he's done with you, all you have left for your next partner is a poorly wrapped, saliva-fouled sucker" approach)
Half the Sky commends Christians for their compassion, willingness to serve in remote areas, and their personal generosity. The book also points out the major problems that occur when liberals and evangelicals get so bogged down in their own ideology that they are unable to cooperate on the issues on which they agree.
"If there is to be a successful movement on behalf of women in poor countries, it will have to bridge the God Gulf. Secular bleeding hearts and religious bleeding hearts will have to forge a common cause. That's what happened two centuries ago in the abolitionist movement, when liberal deists and conservative evangelicals joined forces to overthrow slavery. And it's the only way to muster the political will to get now-invisible women onto the international agenda."- Half the Sky, Ch. 12: Family Planning and the "God Gulf."
That's the statement I'm trying to wrap my mind around, because it's hard for me to believe that's even possible. Regardless of my personal beliefs, I often conduct myself professionally as a secular bleeding heart-because I've met very few religious bleeding hearts, and I gave up on trying to convert evangelicals to social action after four years at a conservative Christian college, in an equally conservative area with insanely high rates of teen pregnancy, high school dropouts and drug abuse.
In contrast, a prof in my department whose emphasis is on Community Based Participatory Research recently guest lectured in my research methods course. She's done quite a bit of work with faith communities in this state, including a couple groups who sought her out as an expert on cervical cancer prevention. And apparently, these churches are genuinely concerned about the health of their members and communities. To the point of carrying out evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs, providing health literature, reminding women from the pulpit to get pap smears and mammograms.... this doesn't fit with the reality of the church I've encountered. This faculty member has been able to have a genuine partnership with women in these church communities, and they've had conversations I believed to be impossible in the faith-based context (for example, the church group initiated the conversation over the HPV vaccine -I was under the impression that I might be the only Christian in South Carolina who believes it's unethical not to vaccinate girls for a virus leading to a potentially deadly disease , considering the prevalence of HPV among U.S. females aged 14-59 years is already 26.8% [NHANES, 2003-2004]).
How much do I agree with Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and Very Competent Tenure Track Professor? Obviously, I can't disagree, but there's a lot of work to be done. The distrust on both sides is not without cause. However, what troubles me most is an attitude among Christians that something cannot be objectively good unless it directly leads to "preaching the gospel" or "someone getting saved." In more reformed/educated circles this expands to "changing the worldview of culture," (i.e. influencing society in such a way that it is easier to live as a Christian in that society). But the underlying principle is still "Unless our numbers grow, unless the society we're 'ministering' to views us in a more favorable way, there is no point in service." Can this attitude be changed? Perhaps a better question is "If arrogance on the part of the Christian right leads them to provide healthcare/ESL services/etc as a means to increasing numbers, should that arrogance be challenged, because it ultimately has some positive results?" Which then causes one to ask "How much good are faith-based organizations doing, anyway?" And that's something that is highly specific to the organization. The "Conservative Christians are scary, bad people" position is *just* as indefensible as the "You cannot be a decent human being if you are pro-choice/pro-LGBT rights/pro-healthcare reform/a Democrat" attitude that I found so revolting in college.