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Half the Sky: Cover to Cover

October 14, 2009
Is "Half the Sky" half empty, or half full?

Is "Half the Sky" half empty, or half full?

I finished reading Half the Sky this weekend, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.  It was a bit anti-climactic to actually read the book, after hearing non-stop accolades about the book for months.  Its harbinger was this August’s issue of the New York Times Magazine, which our GAB guest blogger from Bitch posted about here.

Maybe it’s my hardened New York City heart, or maybe it was being stuck in six hours of traffic over the weekend on Bolt Bus sans reading light.  But while the book is pretty much as heart warming as the myriad of reviewers have claimed (including Bill Gates’ dad, who eloquently calls it a ‘must read’), I also found it lacking in some major ways.

I found solace in one of the more thoughtful reviews of the book I’ve read, that of the fabulous Martha Nussbaum, who leaves no sentence un-scrutinized.  Nussbaum mostly praises Kristoff and WuDunn, though chides them for their simplified reading of religion’s bearing on women’s rights, namely the suggestion that Islam=misogyny and that Muslim women’s Hindu counterparts tend to enjoy greater women’s rights.  Thank God for Martha.

I have other thoughts. 

One is more of a revelation.   After reading the book, I’m convinced that Kristof is either anti-choice or does not support access to safe abortion.  OR, even worse, he’s too scared to say one way or another.  Aside from stating the obvious, that it would be good to reduce the need for abortion, he pussyfoots around the issue almost entirely throughout 252 pages.

There was a brief chapter where it would’ve been pertinent to address the issue, mainly that the large percentage of maternal deaths from unsafe abortion can’t simply be cured by throwing more condoms around — that not ALL women need abortions because they didn’t use or couldn’t get contraceptives.  The point ached to be made that we need to increase access to family planning, BUT also make abortion safe and accessible where it’s already legal (India, Ethiopia) and even push for legality where it’s not (Nicaragua, El Salvador, etc.).  OK, he could’ve omitted this last point, I’m a bit radical, I’ll admit.  But alas, he was mum on that issue and my heart sank a bit.

To boot, he quite notably omitted a number of women’s health and rights giants like Planned Parenthood Federation of America, International Planned Parenthood Federation, or Ipas in his endless plugs for great organizations, big and small, supporting women.  These particular three he omitted happen to be filling in extremely important gaps for women worldwide by focusing on Kristof’s white elephant: safe abortion.  Coincidence?  I think someone just got their hand slapped.  Meanwhile, he happily plugged faith-based development guzzlers like Catholic Relief Services and WorldVision.  What the…??

He had semi-nice things to say about Representative Chris Smith (insert imploding angry face here), the inimitable anti-abortion opponent, and ever the gadfly in the hopeful soup of women’s health and rights champions.  He granted that abstinence-only education doesn’t always work, but often times it does.

There was a fleeting nod to environmental issues like climate change and the dreaded “population” question.  But that’s all it was, fleeting.  So fleeting that it basically drew the unfortunate connection between more [poor/brown] babies = bad news for the globe therefore women need to not have so many babies.  Goodbye rights, choice, respect.  And it’s waaaay more complicated than that, and I think that if you can’t get into the complexity to explain it then maybe you shouldn’t get into it at all.

In short, I was disappointed and even disturbed by how well Kristof and WuDunn, who have traveled the globe thrice over, seen lots and know lots about these issues, straddled both sides of what are some very tough, divisive issues.  Instead of making me feel hopeful and fuzzy inside, I felt it a cop out.  They advocated non-starter issues like “iodized salt for all!”  They did a great job of showcasing some very outstanding women who have surmounted earth-shattering traumas to become shining lights of leadership.  Yet there are millions more not so outstanding nor lucky.  I enjoyed reading the stories, but I missed the critical analysis.  I missed the appreciation for rights, for nuance, and, frankly, the reality of abortion.

That said, I don’t want to sound like a complete ingrate, for Kristof especially has done lots of good things for this cause, not least of which is making sure that Joe Shmoe in Anytown, USA, even if just once in his life, will sit up a think about Prudence Lemokuono in southeast Cameroon, laying dying with an already-deceased fetus still in her womb and consider that tragedy and injustice.  And that’s a huge thing.  I think Kristof is great at raising the collective conscience toward some very real and very important things.  But I don’t think he’s its best mouthpiece.

  1. Abigail Colodner permalink
    October 19, 2009 8:41 pm

    A very level, pointed review. Thanks for giving some critical perspective on a piece that’s ubiquitous now!

  2. Molly permalink
    October 28, 2009 12:32 pm

    Maybe he didn’t address abortion services because he knew that providing a safe environment for women to kill their own children wasn’t exactly coinciding with a better world for women.

    • October 29, 2009 7:21 am

      Well, that’s an interesting theory Molly, except that fetuses are not children and in confusing the two you totally elide the issue of women’s bodily autonomy, not to mention the possibility of needing an abortion for health reasons. Can you explain how ignoring such things leads to a better world for women?

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