Review of Controlling Reproduction: Women, Society, and Power By Nancy E. Riley and Nilanjana Chatterjee, Hoboken, NJ: Polity Press. 2023. 224 pp.

Reviewed Book

Controlling Reproduction: Women, Society, and Power By Nancy E. Riley and Nilanjana Chatterjee, Hoboken, NJ: Polity Press. 2023. 224 pp.

Cover of Controlling Reproduction (2023)

Jessica L. Lott

Northern Kentucky University

Controlling Reproduction is a timely book that makes plain the many ways social institutions shape the lives of women and reproductive agency around the world. The text focuses on structural control of women’s reproduction and the complex ways that reproduction is contested. Despite the potential for repercussions, women resist the forces and policies that seek to limit their reproductive goals in myriad ways—quietly as an individual, in organized protest, and in many ways in between. The authors address a variety of power inequalities (Global North/Global South, racism, religious discrimination, etc.) and are attentive to women’s positionalities. Taking a feminist stance, the authors center a gendered analysis to argue forcefully that women’s control of reproduction and women’s lives are important goals in and of themselves. Though the text is rich with international examples, the United States is used as a touchpoint throughout. The book opens by describing current restrictive abortion laws in the United States, which are an outlier compared to much of the world. However, the US has exceptional influence in global reproductive politics. The authors demonstrate how these twin facts shape women’s circumstances and “choices” throughout the text.

Controlling Reproduction is a wide-ranging synthesis and examines a variety of institutions: the state, the family, religion, neoliberalism, and globalization, as well as the interplay among them. After defining key terms and goals of the book, the authors discuss ways that the state directly controls reproduction (Chapter 2), ways that the state works alongside other social institutions to control reproduction (Chapters 3 and 4), the importance of reproduction for the survival of communities (Chapter 5), and ways neoliberalism and globalization control reproduction (Chapters 6 and 7). Riley and Chatterjee use a variety of case studies from around the world to illustrate why these institutions are concerned with reproduction and the methods used to control it. Case studies are carefully chosen in each chapter, sometimes illustrating the diverse, contextual ways that the state functions, sometimes underlining common power dynamics at play. Case studies and arguments build throughout the text, with each chapter adding a layer of understanding on top of the last.

An important premise in this book is that control of reproduction typically means control of women. This is, in part, because reproduction is largely located within women’s bodies. As reproduction is targeted by the state and other institutions, women are the ones who are surveilled and controlled. This control happens in a variety of ways. In Chapter 2, for example, the authors describe China’s “one child” policy, where the state enacted a “birth planning” program based on the coercion of women. China wanted to reduce its population to reduce poverty and to gain status on the world stage; the burden of this goal was laid on women and their bodies. All births were to be planned, and women applied for permission to have a child. Women’s bodies and pregnancies were closely watched. Women were required to use contraceptives, typically an IUD. If a second child was born, women were required to undergo sterilization. If a hidden pregnancy was caught, women might be subjected to an unwanted abortion alongside other punishments. While all were expected to sacrifice for the state, women and girls did so disproportionately.

States have a vested interest in reproduction, as reproduction is often linked to national economic outcomes or demographic strength. The state is a dynamic institution, situated in time and place, collaborating with other institutions (e.g., religion, the family) and interacting with neoliberal capitalism. The authors’ discussion of these complex interplays and insistence on contextual understanding serves to undermine prejudices and assumptions that the reader may hold. For example, in Chapter 3, the authors complicate the assumption that Islam discourages women’s control over their own fertility. Riley and Chatterjee compare Egypt and Morocco, which are Islamic states with similar goals of population control and economic growth. In Egypt, the state used religious leaders to communicate that family planning is compatible with Islamic ideology; their trajectory in family planning programs has been similar to secular nations. Morocco constructed Islam as opposed to modern family planning programs. Women were left with contradictory positions on family planning from the state and from Islam. Many women in Morocco, though, mobilize Islam’s teaching that one should lead a good-quality life to support having a smaller number of children. In this example, women’s desire to have fewer children supported state goals; they prioritized their own reproductive goals without challenging existing gender structures or norms. In this example, and throughout the volume, the authors make clear the various ways that women’s reproduction is contested.

States typically have a vision of the nation, including desired population composition. It follows that reproductive control is shaped by a variety of inequalities based on race, ethnicity, religion, class, and gender. In Chapter 5, the authors show that dominant groups around the world construct who constitutes a demographic threat and find ways to curtail their reproduction. For example, throughout history, the US has used both direct and indirect efforts to encourage some groups’ reproduction and to discourage others’ (e.g. support/lack of support for families and children, tax laws). This is apparent in immigration policy as well as social norms in white America that construct immigrants and their children as outsiders. There is particular concern around supposedly “hyperfertile” female immigrants. A stratified approach to reproduction is also evident in the US history of eugenics and coerced sterilization of women in marginalized groups (Native American, African American, Latinx).

Neoliberalism and globalization have shifted some control away from the state in recent decades, though reproduction remains an important concern. The authors address ways that this shift affects control of reproduction in Chapters 6 and 7. For example, nonstate actors (e.g., NGOs, the UN) are now key players in shaping reproduction. Neoliberal agendas and ideologies often mean that social support programs to provide reproductive healthcare or to lessen poverty are weakened or nonexistent. Moreover, programs focus on the individual and individualism, rather than contexts (such as poverty) that severely limit women’s ability to make choices. In this logic, national economic and population issues are “fixed” through women’s individual reproductive “choices.” When women’s reproductive health is only supported in service of another goal, women’s quality of life is ignored. The authors argue that policy goals should center on improving women’s reproductive healthcare and reducing gender inequality.

Riley and Chatterjee end the book with a discussion of feminist speculative fiction. While most of the text addresses reproductive control and resistance in the present and recent history, this chapter uses science fiction to think about how important themes of reproduction and gender inequality might change in the future. This genre gives us new ways to consider gender, sexuality, and reproduction. Imagination will be necessary to consider how to shape a future with greater gender equity and reproductive agency.

This book is dense with information, yet highly readable with a straightforward tone and style. Those interested in bringing a global understanding to reproductive control in the US or looking for an overview of ways that the state and social institutions control reproduction will find food for thought here. This text would be a wonderful addition to advanced undergraduate and graduate classes on reproduction or gender and globalization in anthropology, sociology, and beyond. Controlling Reproduction is certain to spark curiosity in students and discussion in the classroom.