Reproductive Rights and the Power of Comparison


In 1980 I wrote a piece called “Orientalism, Occidentalism and the Control of Women.” In it I posited that control over women in the West and East was accomplished by pointing the finger at the Other. See, say the Egyptian pundits, “the West controls women by taking away the family name in preference to the name of the male spouse.” And the pundits in the West say, “see, Middle Easterners control women by having more than one spouse.” To which Easterners say that in the West prostitution is legal. Or Westerners say their women still wear veils—not a sign of modern development. Such is the power of comparison and when used by key people, it satisfies the status quo.

The paper was reviewed by two male anthropologists, who suggested that I separate East from West and turn the piece into two articles—one focusing on the state of Western women, the other on the state of Eastern women. The article was not published as I wished in the United States, but rather ended up being accepted for publication by Cultural Dynamics in Belgium. It was then translated into French and later found its way into French Canada before being republished elsewhere. The power of comparison was in this case too much for some American anthropologists, who did not distinguish lay comparisons from those used by academics.

At the time of writing “Orientalism, Occidentalism and the Control of Women,” my purpose was to indicate how images of women in other societies can be prejudicial to women in one’s own society. And while male dogma is prevalent in all contemporary nation states, patterns vary; it is this variation which is crucial to the maintenance of different patriarchal systems. Positional superiority draws attention from the processes that control women worldwide, as in the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade. Thus, there is a need for anthropological comparison in our investigations at the global level. In the United States, the unprecedented overturning of Roe v. Wade after fifty years has been followed by the introduction of possible criminal charges for practicing abortion in predominantly Republican states. There were mid-term elections in 2022 and much talk of women’s reproductive rights. In response, California, Michigan, and Vermont wrote women’s reproductive rights into their state constitutions. 

In many states, there is a loss of abortion rights even for women who are the victims of rape or incest. The contemporary status of American women takes us back to the nineteenth century, with women having to leave their states to find abortion care elsewhere, while also fearing criminal charges for those doctors who might help them, as well as for themselves—as mentioned, even in the case when they are a victim of rape or incest, which are crimes. Even in Texas there are now attempts to criminalize those who sell abortion pills. 

There have been very few comparisons being made with countries outside of the United States, even among those outspoken in favor of women’s reproductive rights. There was, however, much talk about the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which was perceived as unprecedented and, some argue, unconstitutional in a country where all are supposed to be equal.

Meanwhile, out of curiosity about women’s reproductive rights globally, I sat down with a friend who had a smartphone and started to collect data. “What country in the Middle East has reproductive choice for women?” My guess was wrong—not Lebanon. When my mother was in Lebanon the belief was that “It’s not their business [referring to the state],” as she said empathetically at the age of 96. Rather it was the business of the woman, her family, and their religion. Today only one Arab country has pro-choice law—Tunisia. 

We continued with the help of the smartphone, which also provides references for its assertions. “What about the European Union countries?” I asked. What about the United Kingdom? Pro-choice, as is Ireland, which is predominantly Catholic. What about Russia? Pro-choice. What about China and India? Both pro-choice. In Latin America, only Argentina and, more recently, Mexico are pro-choice. Canada, which provides complete medical care for all through government policies, is of course pro-choice.

So what major industrial country does not give pro-choice reproductive rights to women? The United States! And what do such comparisons tell us about the status of women in the United States? It seems that we have regressed to the nineteenth century. American women today do not have control over their own bodies. How could this have happened, and could it be turned around? We could point to former President Trump’s reactionary appointments to the Supreme Court. But how, in the face of massive public support for Roe v. Wade, could the Supreme Court go against the grain despite poll after poll indicating loss of public support for the court? Suggestions have been made to deal with this public loss of support. Some suggest court term limits or increasing the numbers on the court for some abortion rights groups. This is the United States, supposedly a democratic society. Yet the Supreme Court is dictating a ruling that has little support, even among many Catholics and among other religious groups. Despite public opinion, some members of this court are threatening to dictate further on gender issues, this time on cross-gender questions.

In this supposed example of what is happening to women’s reproductive rights, comparison is indeed powerful in revealing a global context. American women in the United States have been demoted in status in the global context. No longer can we brag, as in earlier periods, as I mentioned in “Orientalism, Occidentalism and Control of Women.” No longer can we point the finger.

Extending Comparisons to Other Realms of Culture

Reproductive choice is but one example of how non-anthropological comparison can be used to call attention to something that matters. Another is single-payer social policies (or their equivalents). After all, Canada has had single-payer for decades, as have many European countries. Or maternity leave. But even with Roe v. Wade and a women’s right to choose, if an American woman wants to have a child and work outside the home, paid leave for maternity is not federally mandated. In fact, paid leave for maternity is the norm—except for in the United States (New York Times, 10/6/07). One hundred and seventy countries offer some paid maternity leave; 98 of them offer 14 weeks off with pay. A National Geographic map published in 2007 revealed that the United States is only one of four that does not—the others being Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.

Why is this so? This is not so easy to answer, especially since Americans often brag about the status of women in the United States. Working women may want greater government involvement but many businesses reject the idea of giving paid leave because of the financial cost, even though the idea of the single-income household is now outdated.

California has had a paid family leave policy since 2004, and workers contribute a small percentage of their paycheck to pay for it. I myself had three children while teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, with no maternity leave. My husband, in contrast, could take paternity leave as a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. Indeed, suggestions at the federal level that money is a problem is ridiculous given that 170 countries now provide paid leave. 

A second step is public anthropology—reaching out to the American public, much as earlier anthropologists, such as Ruth Benedict, or Margaret Mead, or Clyde Kluckhohn, did. In my own experience, I have delivered hundreds of talks to non-anthropological audiences. Anthropology matters now more than ever, given how powerful modern technologies of disinformation are. We have comparative methods; we do participant observation as ethnographers. There is much to gain from ethnographies—a knowledge of what our country really is today.

Final Comments

In researching this article, I learned a few things about my country that I had not known before—how exceptional the United States is in areas where we are not supposed to be exceptional, that is, how unusual the absence of women’s reproductive rights is globally, how unusual the absence of maternity leave is when viewed comparatively, and how rare student debt—and also medical debt—is in the wealthiest of nations. Viewed competitively, our use of juries in the criminal justice system is honorable, but the United States has more people in prison than any major world power. Comparison is indeed a powerful way to reveal what is really going on in our country—aspects of it that for the most part go unnoticed. Why? Really? Some people say the smartphone obscured what anthropological ethnographies have revealed about the world outside the United States. Smartphones are not so smart.

Americans are taught from an early age that their country is exceptional; to think otherwise, given the number of wars we have been involved in, would not be patriotic. Michael Moore produced a documentary film called Where to Invade Next in 2015 saying that other countries did better. The film was well received but won no awards. We teach that war is patriotic, not a weakness. And, as I learned working on the Carnegie Council of Children for many years, it is not acceptable to say that kids in France are treated better than here. Really? “No Children Left Behind”? Yes, beware of the power of comparison: You might learn something you didn’t know before. 

But the global picture is not always as positive as this article suggests. Pro-choice legislative changes in Ireland and Northern Ireland are very recent. Malta—an EU country—still has a total ban on abortion. Poland has, over recent years, introduced legislation to restrict abortion to only very limited and exceptional circumstances. A focus on legislation also overlooks the many ways in which abortions can be legal but inaccessible (for example, due to “conscientious objection” on the part of healthcare providers). Indeed, much more could be made of comparison of the rollback in reproductive rights that we have witnessed across the world in recent years, and the important role of the anthropologist in documenting, understanding, and fighting against this.


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