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Laura Keynes: The poverty of Kathy Lette’s prescription for the global poor. More of the Pill and abortion


Last week, Australian chick-lit author Kathy Lette made an appearance in London, talking about being an ambassador for global children’s charity Plan UK.

Plan arranged for Lette to visit some slum communities in Brazil, ‘to see at first hand the challenges that girls and women face in impoverished communities.’

Lette discussed the trip with Emma Barnett, Telegraph Women’s Editor. A fifteen minute edit of the interview is available on Plan UK’s website, plus a circumspect warning about ‘outspoken views’, ‘which do not necessarily reflect those of Plan.’

The Telegraph, less circumspect and knowing exactly how to bait readers, gave air to Lette’s outspoken views. Cue the headline, ‘Catholicism is killing women, says Kathy Lette’.

It’s cheap journalism, and I hate to take the bait, but the real story isn’t Lette’s anti-Catholicism, which needn’t be taken too seriously. She is, after all, the wife of Geoffrey Robertson QC, whose book ‘The Case of the Pope’ harps on a theme popular in secular liberal quarters – child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. They probably wind each other up at home.

Besides, all those Catholic nuns working in the favelas will have plenty to say in response. They were there long before Kathy Lette showed up, so they’ll know a thing or two.

The real story is that Kathy Lette continues to get air time. She’s all brash flippancy, with pithy one liners that get an audience laughing and don’t invite much investigation. News editors lap it up, precisely because no-one has to think too hard.

Lette’s beef is Catholic opposition to contraception and abortion, two things she uncritically takes to be cure-alls for the world’s ills. For Lette, women’s fertility is the real enemy, cause of all problems: “The only way to break the cycle of poverty is to break the menstrual cycle.”

There’s something violent about that phrase ‘break the menstrual cycle’, as if to break the menstrual cycle is to break womanhood itself. Women are fertile – fact of nature – and feminism won’t serve women until the world takes account of our fertility and works with it, instead of seeing it as something to be broken, conquered, battered into submission.

There is no doubt Brazil suffers from entrenched social problems, but in touting contraception and abortion as a panacea, Lette and well meaning human rights advocates like her miss the bigger picture.

Lette cites an awful case of girls being raped on their way to school in the next village. Plan UK built a school in their village. Great. A practical solution. Problem solved. Or is it? Only partly. What about educating those men not to rape? What about teaching men to respect the dignity of women, as the Church teaches?

Plan UK, says Lette, “sneaks contraception to the women behind their husbands’ backs.” What happens when the husbands find out, as they surely will? Who’s there to protect those girls when that happens? How about educating husbands and wives in natural family planning, a form of birth control listed on the NHS website as 99 per cent effective?

With NFP, men learn there that are times when their partner’s body is not ‘available for use 24/7’. Men learn that sex is off the menu, unless they’re willing to make a commitment and provide for mother and child. Contraception, on the other hand, means men can use women as and when they like, with no consequences.

Changing male behaviour is key, but abortion and contraception do nothing to encourage change. Lette says, “Unless you work to educate people, nothing is going to change” but education here means an education in contraceptive methods, and applies only to girls: “If you can educate a girl, she won’t get pregnant.” This puts the onus back on women, and asks that men take no responsibility.

Lette ‘described how, on her trip, she met a nine-year-old who had been assaulted by her stepfather and was pregnant with twins.’ Awful. Lette’s response to this? Better access to abortion and contraception. Which would only have allowed the girl’s abuser to get away with it for longer, as in this case in the US where a stepfather abused his stepdaughter for years. Abortion enabled his behaviour, and compounded the girl’s tragedy.

It suits everyone to think eradicating poverty is as simple as handing out IUDs and building abortion clinics. The reality is more complex and it will require men and women, charities and institutions to work together instead of demonising each other as the enemy.

Kathy Lette is a useful tool for Plan UK, getting its mission known, but her anti-Catholicism doesn’t serve anyone and usually indicates a blind spot. There’s a bigger picture here, and those who focus on abortion and contraception miss seeing it. Sure, the news cycle relies on celebs saying daft things or championing certain causes, but it’s cheap journalism and cheaper publicity. It confirms bias and reinforces blind spots. Who’s being served by it?

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Laura Keynes
Laura Keynes
Dr Keynes is a Cambridge-based academic, writer and critic with two very young children. She writes for Standpoint magazine, the Catholic Herald and The Tablet. Find her on twitter @LMKeynes.

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