What one intervention could save the lives of 570,000 babies, 79,000 women and make a large impact on the number one killer of young women aged 15 to 19? Family planning. That’s right, investing in family planning services saves the lives of babies, women and adolescent girls around the world. With all of the rhetoric being thrown around in the debate about birth control in the United States, it is easy to forget that birth control— Rush Limbaugh’s slander notwithstanding — is not about “sluts” and “whores;” it’s about providing services to women that save lives.
Currently, according to the Guttmacher Institute, there are 222 million women in the developing world who are said to have an “unmet need” for family planning. This means that these women want to avoid a pregnancy in the next two years, but are not using a modern contraceptive method (such as the pill or an IUD). It means that women who want to decide if, when and how many children they would like to have do not currently have the option to make those choices, and this has a profound impact on their health and their children’s health. If all of these women had their unmet need fulfilled, it would save the lives of an estimated 79,000 women per year.
On top of saving those lives, family planning gives women the ability to time and space their births, which allows for healthier babies and children. Babies who are born less than two years after a sibling are twice as likely to die as babies who are born after a three year interval. When spaced close together, children are more likely to be stunted or undernourished. This affects not only the newborn, but also the older children.
With spacing, parents are able to give their newborn the best start in life with more time spent breastfeeding and time to plan and prepare for any subsequent children. If women were able to space their births by 36 months, it could prevent 1.8 million deaths of children under the age of 5. Spacing is also important to the health of the mother. Women who become pregnant again after less than five months are 2.5 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than if they had waited 18 to 23 months.
Another area where family planning can have a measured impact is in delaying the age of first pregnancy. One factor in this is child marriage. Every year, around 10 million girls under the age of 18 are married. This often pulls girls out of school and limits their access to and information about family planning services. They are therefore more likely to have early and frequent pregnancies, both of which can have a significant impact on the health of the mother and the health of the child.
Since the girls are so young, their bodies are not fully developed and they are more at risk for a range of complications, including obstructed labor which can result in the death of the mother, baby, or both. Girls aged 15 to 19 have twice the risk of maternal death as women in their 20s, and for girls aged 10 to 14, the risk is 5 times as great.
Each year, 16 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth, leading to 50,000 pregnancy-related deaths, making it the number one cause of death for that age group. Babies born to adolescent mothers under age 18 have a 60% higher chance of dying in their first year than those of a baby whose mother is 19 or older. Enabling young women to have access to family planning in order to delay the age their first pregnancy will lead to healthier mothers and healthier babies.
Family planning also makes economic sense. Currently, the world spends $4 billion annually on family planning services and saves, as a consequence, $5.6 billion in maternal and newborn health costs. The Guttmacher Institute reports that it would cost an additional $4.1 billion to meet the unmet need for modern contraceptives in the developing world, but doing so would save $5.7 billion in other costs, including maternal and infant care.
For all these reasons, it is imperative that the United States join with other donor countries in boosting their funding commitments at the upcoming Family Planning Summit in London on July 11. The summit, which is being hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), has set the goal of expanding family planning services to an additional 120 million women in the developing world by 2020. If that goal is to be met, the United States needs to boost its funding support, not cut it.
Make your voice heard! Tell Congress to do its part in making the goal of universal access to reproductive health services a reality and save the lives of mothers and children.
Photo credit: Nick Cunard, Department for International Development