Posted on | July 2, 2012 by Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D. |
Perusing the Sunday New York Times yesterday I saw that Joan Dunlop died on Friday at 78. I wondered how many pro-lifers would even know the name. The obit did her no justice. Couched in the fuzzy, cryptic terms about health and women’s rights editors use these days for abortion, it was hard to tell that she was a giant in the arena of international abortion politics.
Dunlop, married and divorced twice and never “faintly interested” in children, was a protegé of John D. Rockefeller, III. She said she believed that admitting she’d had an abortion during her interview got her the job as his assistant. It was Rockefeller who led the charge for international population control. His vision and large fortune established and set the agenda for institutions still at the tip of the spear: International Planned Parenthood Federation, Population Council, Ford and Rockefeller foundations, UNFPA.
Dunlop’s role was pivotal. She is the one who rebranded the discredited population control movement into a women’s rights campaign in the 1980s thereby saving it from financial ruin. It was a brilliant move, a legacy that has lived on and shaped the debate for three decades.
But just as she was taking her last breaths, Dunlop’s legacy began to unravel.
Twenty years after unabashedly championing population control as a way to help the environment, world leaders chipped away the feminist patina over the population agenda and decided they didn’t need it after all. At the just-concluded UN Rio+20 conference on sustainable development countries rejected any mention of ”reproductive rights,” a term specifically coined in 1994 to transform population control into a women’s rights issue.
What happened? First, links between population control advocates and environmentalists are out in the open again. Back in vogue, population controllers don’t really need the feminist narrative or its encumbrances: chiefly, the abortion wars.
And second, delegates simply took feminists at their word: if reproductive rights isn’t about population but rather women’s empowerment, then what does it have to do with the “green economy” anyway? Some delegates said just that.
So what becomes of Dunlop’s legacy? If reproductive rights isn’t about population control and really is about abortion (as so many delegates said at Rio) then what good is it? The term permeates UN literature–from technical WHO field manuals to flowery UNFPA fundraising brochures. It will be hard to expunge.
But perhaps there is another Joan Dunlop waiting in the wings. A zealous advocate with the connections to help morph international abortion advocacy yet again.
Right now Melinda Gates is launching her own family planning revolution. Like Dunlop, Gates says its all about women’s rights and not population control. Next week Gates meets with world leaders in London to set the funding blaze. She is young yet, 47, and may see considerable gains in her lifetime. But as Dunlop’s career in the same arena tell us, success may well be the cause of her failure.