[Editor's Note: Michelle Goldberg will read at Powell's City of Books on Sunday, April 26 at 7:30 PM.
The second chapter of my new book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World, hinges on a pregnant nine-year-old in Nicaragua, and the efforts of the Catholic right to prevent her from getting an abortion. That case ultimately precipitated a 2006 law that bans all abortion in Nicaragua even when a woman's life is at stake, which has led to a doubling of maternal mortality in that country, and to hideous stories of pregnant women being left to hemorrhage to death in hospitals. My book is about the global battle over reproductive rights, and one of its major arguments is that, as I write in the introduction, "the widespread, overwhelming abuse and devaluation of women, especially in poor countries, is the biggest human rights crisis in the world today." The story of nine-year-old Rosita seemed, at first, to demonstrate that quite clearly. But reality, as it so often is, was more complicated. It was darker than I'd imagined, but also more intriguing.
The Rosita saga was one of several I encountered that brought home to me the difference between being a journalist and being an activist. My writing has always had a polemical cast. I'm a liberal and a feminist, and my journalism reflects the way I see the world. Though I think newspaper-style objectivity plays a hugely valuable role, I've never aspired to it, and I believe subjective writing can be, in its own way, as honest as straight reporting. If you ever hang out with reporters, you know they'll sometimes tell you the story behind or beyond what appears on the page — the impressions or interpretations that don't fit into the strictures (or just the space constraints) of their publications. At its best, opinionated writing can narrow the gap between what you tell the world and what you tell your friends. It can be a better representation of a truth, if not the truth.
That's very different than propaganda, in which there's an even greater chasm between reality and representation. It's one thing to start with a political perspective, another to force one's findings to conform to it. Indeed, over and over again while researching my book, the stories that fascinated me the most were the ones that were counterintuitive, complex, or morally ambiguous, that challenged my own preconceptions. Like the rich, progressive neighborhood in South Delhi where educated, liberated women seek sex-selective abortions to avoid the burden of daughters. Or the Cold War origins of the international family planning movement, which was started by staunch anti-communists, often with military backgrounds, who believed that overpopulation was going to cause such misery as to inspire worldwide revolution. Or the case of Rosita, with its terribly compromised heroines.
When I began researching the story, I thought I was looking at a classic David and Goliath tale. Rosita, the daughter of Nicaraguan migrants working in Costa Rica, claimed a neighbor had raped her. In a documentary about the case, her parents appear sweet, caring, and resolute that she be allowed to abort. Arrayed against them were the governments of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, both under the influence of the Catholic Church and determined to force the girl to carry her pregnancy to term. A group of scrappy feminists smuggled Rosita and her mother from Costa Rica to their native Nicaragua. Then they spirited Rosita away from a hospital where she was under government surveillance to a private home where three of the best gynecologists in the country performed the procedure.
When it was over, Nicaragua's Catholic Cardinal announced the excommunication of everyone involved. Anti-abortion forces were so outraged that they began organizing to tighten the country's abortion law still further. Inside the government and the church, people suggested that Rosita's stepfather had impregnated her, but the feminists dismissed this as a slur against a poor and uneducated but loving man.
Rosita, meanwhile, became an international cause célèbre. Some abortion rights activists brought her parents to Chile to advocate for abortion-law liberalization there. Public opinion in Nicaragua was on the side of her family and their feminist allies, and the whole incident got people talking about abortion, a formerly taboo subject, as never before.
After the abortion, Rosita and her family disappeared from the public eye for a while. But five years later, in 2007, they were back in the news when Rosita's mother filed a report accusing her husband of raping her daughter. As I write in the book, it emerged that the abuse had been going on for years. Not long after the first pregnancy, she'd gotten pregnant again, and by the time of her renewed notoriety, she had a 19-month-old daughter. According to the local media, it was an open secret in her neighborhood that her stepfather was also her baby's father.
The stepfather fled before being apprehended and sentenced to 30 years in prison for rape. Suddenly the Nicaraguan feminists who had helped Rosita's family years ago appeared under a cloud of complicity. The government tried to bring charges against them, and the anti-abortion movement momentarily appeared to have the moral high ground.
Watching all this unfold, I felt badly for these women who I'd liked and admired. I believed they'd deluded themselves about Rosita's family, and that they hadn't meant to participate in a cover-up. And I believed that the father's identity didn't change the fact that nine-year-old Rosita wasn't equipped to give birth and shouldn't have been forced to do so. But it was pretty clear that in their search for a perfect poster girl, the feminists had ignored warning signs, and, more importantly, missed the chance to protect the horribly abused Rosita from years of further victimization. Before they seemed like her saviors. Now they appeared like her inadvertent exploiters.
For me, the case was no longer a clear-cut parable that neatly illustrated my central thesis. But I had the somewhat guilty and selfish sense that the chapter was better for it.
Though less politically useful, the tale was now more interesting, and I realized I was more eager to delve into the muddled gray areas of my stories than to tie up every ideological loose end. I think most writers would feel the same way.
Now that the book is out, I'm sometimes called on to be a political spokesperson. It's not a role I really mind — I've written a book, after all, with a strong political argument that's meant to awaken people to a global problem that deserves more attention than it receives. But the role isn't a natural fit, either, because, like most writers I know, I always remain a little bit skeptical and impious even towards the causes I most care about. Activists have to be believers, while journalists have to be doubters. To say this doesn't mean that I don't take my own arguments and my own politics seriously — far from it. It's just that arguments and politics aren't worth much if they can't survive the messy, contradictory evidence of real life.