At a major family planning conference in London, England organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the British government, contraception for developing countries is being put back on the agenda. Between 1995 and 2008, international assistance funds for family planning were virtually replaced with spending on HIV/AIDS. While treating and preventing HIV/AIDS is obviously a very important international development issues, so is family planning in an environment where the world’s population continues to surge.
$4 Billion Pledged to Help 120 Million Women
At the conference, more than $4 billion was pledged for family planning services. This is expected to provide family planning services to 120 million women in the world’s poorest countries over the next eight years. According to a new study in The Lancet, using data from the United Nations and World Health Organization, many lives could be saved by giving women birth control options (source: NY Times):
Birth control reduces health risks, the researchers said, by delaying first pregnancies, which carry higher risks in very young women; cutting down on unsafe abortions, which account for 13 percent of all maternal deaths in developing countries; and controlling dangers associated with pregnancies that are too closely spaced.
The World Health Organization estimates that the unmet need for contraception is significant — around 222 million women in developing countries are not using any method of contraception, but would like to be able to delay or stop having children. The reasons for the lack of access to contraception include:
- limited choice of methods;
- limited access to contraception, particularly among young people, poorer segments of the populations, or unmarried people;
- fear or experience of side-effects;
- cultural or religious opposition;
- poor quality of available services;
- gender-based barriers.
The level of unmet demand for contraception is at 53% of women of reproductive age in Africa, 21% in Asia, and 22% in Latin America and the Caribbean. The issue of limited choice of methods can be of particular concern to women who feel the need to hide their contraceptive use from their husbands and would therefore rather be able to get an injection every once in a while rather than trying to hide pills at home.
Why is Family Planning Controversial?
Although it could save millions of lives, the decision to fund family planning is not without controversy. Catholic groups argue that Melinda Gates, a Catholic herself, is contradicting the teaching of her own religion by supporting and promoting this agenda. Steve Jalsevac, co-founder of LifeSiteNews.com, told the Toronto Star:
It’ss clearly a contradiction of very serious Catholic moral teachings. Most of the poor people in the Third World — that’s the last thing they want from the West. They want food, water, medical care.
According to Melinda Gates, however, there should be no controversy. She told the New York Times:
Somewhere along the way we got confused by our own conversation and we stopped trying to save these lives. We’re not talking about abortion. We’re not talking about population control. What I’m talking about is giving women the power to save their lives.
Criticism has also come from a cultural perspective, with the Nigerian President telling the BBC that “it is difficult for you to tell any Nigerian to number their children because …it is not expected to reject God’s gifts.”
That is, however, missing the point. Family planning isn’t about telling women or families what to do. It is about giving them the ability to make choices and have some control over their own survival. That choice may be to use contraception or not to use it, but the choice should at least be available.