Access to Contraception Helps Save Lives—and the Planet

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Melinda Gates, right, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, meet with activists at a London summit on family planning. The Gates Foundation donated over $1 billion to help improve access to contraception

In too much of the world, the most dangerous thing a woman can do is bear a child. Every day, 800 women die from preventable causes while giving birth. Almost none of those women have to die—after all, 99% of maternal deaths occur in the developing world, which means rich nations have all but eliminated it. There has to be a way to cut that needless death toll.

According to a new study published in the Lancet, there is—and it may have a surprisingly green side effect. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that meeting the unmet demand for contraception among women in developing countries could reduce global maternal deaths by nearly a third, chiefly by reducing the number of times a mother has to go through the potentially deadly process of childbirth. But increasing access to contraception would also likely have the impact of reducing population growth—especially in the poorest and most crowded nations—which would ease pressure on the environment and the economy at the same time.

The Lancet study came just before the London Summit on Family Planning, where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a major donation—$1.1 billion—to provide family planning for women in the developing world. Contraception access has become a major cause for Melinda Gates in particular—the foundation has already pledged more than $750 million for the fight—and she told Reuters that the commitment will be on par with the organization’s other programs, including malaria and tuberculosis:

Because we didn’t have contraception or family planning on the agenda we weren’t putting new money into it. We weren’t saying this is a priority. So this is our moment in time to say this is a priority and we need to fund it.

The Gates money is needed. Family planning used to be a major part of international development aid, but the percentage of international population assistance that went to contraception fell from 55% in 1995 to 6% in 2008, even as spending on HIV/AIDS skyrocketed. The hope is that the London summit will be able to reverse that decline, with $4 billion to be pledged in an effort to provide family planning to 120 million over the next eight years—a little more than half of the total number of women who want contraception but can’t get access to it.

It’s not just money, though. Family planning has fallen off the development agenda. That’s partially due to coercive policies in the 1970s, including India’s forced sterilization and China’s one-child policy. But even today—as we saw with the endless Sandra Fluke/Rush Limbaugh kerfuffle over whether religious institutions should be required to cover birth control—population policy remains controversial in much of the world, including the U.S. Federal development aid for population assistance has often been held up by Congress because of concerns over abortion funding.

That’s too bad because unchecked population growth is an creeping threat to human health and the environment, as I wrote last year when global population passed the 7 billion mark:

There’s an undeniable cost to all these people and all this growth: the planet itself. Even as human beings have grown in numbers and wealth, becoming healthier and more robust, other species have suffered. A study last year in Science found that on average, 52 species of mammals, birds and amphibians move one category closer to extinction every year. Almost one-fifth of existing vertebrates species are threatened, including some 41% of amphibians. Another recent Science study found that human beings are destroying apex predators like tigers, wolves or sharks, which then has a major knock on effect down the food chain.

Coercive population programs were a crime against human rights, and no reputable organization—or democratic country—would go down that road again. (Though forced abortions still happen far too often in China.) But greater access to contraception and smart family planning needs to be a part of development aid and environmental policy—for our sake and the planet’s too.

Vasu Murti
Vasu Murti

"Access to Contraception Helps Save Lives and the Planet," says Bryan Walsh.

When I cited Griswold v. Connecticut in a letter to my local newspaper, the Tri-Valley Herald in November 1992, I was NOT arguing "against contraception." Rather, I was arguing FOR PRIVACY.

Dave Gardner distributes "Endangered Species Condoms," in conjunction with the Center for Biological Diversity. 

On USENET in either 1987 or 1988, I pointed out via email to pro-life student John Morrow at Rutgers that we never see anti-abortionists distributing condoms on campuses, in order to bring down the abortion rate (what to speak of addressing the threat of "overpopulation"!). 

The pro-life response?  In 1990, CNN ran a news story about "entertainers" distributing condoms on campuses!   

This led me to conclude that pro-lifers (thinking themselves as "sexually liberated" as pro-choicers, thinking themselves smugly superior to followers of Eastern religions, where there isn't supposed to be any dating nor boyfriends nor girlfriends) find it impossible themselves to be open and honest about fellatio and contraception!   

Distributing condoms is fine, but the real cause of environmental destruction is not "overpopulation," but overconsumption: our meat-centered diet. 

"Global hunger could be directly attributed to meat-eating."


--Chrissie Hynde, Vegetarian Times interview, 1987

Half the world's population does not receive an adequate amount of food to eat. Ten to twenty million die annually of hunger and its effects. The Institute for Food and Development Policy reports that, "Forty thousand children starve to death on this planet every day," or one child every two seconds. 

The livestock population of the United States today consumes enough grain and soybeans to feed over five times the entire human population of the country. We feed these animals over 80% of the corn we grow, and over 95% of the oats. Less than half the harvested agricultural acreage in the United States is used to grow food for people. Most of it is used to grow livestock feed. 

Ronald J. Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, in his 1977 book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, pointed out that 220 million Americans were eating enough food (largely because of the high consumption of grain-fed livestock) to feed over one billion people in the poorer countries. 

It makes sense to eat lower on the food chain!  Dudley Giehl writes in his 1979 book, Vegetarianism:  A Way of Life:   

"The pacific sardine lives along the coasts of North America from Alaska to southern California.  Sardines, once a major part of the California fishing industry, are now considered to be 'commercially extinct.'  Another species classified as 'commercially extinct' is the New England haddock.   Ecologists have also been concerned about the significant reduction in finfish, the Atlantic bluefin tuna, Lake Erie cisco, and blackfins that inhabit Lakes Huron and Michigan.   

"Over 200,000 porpoises are killed every year by fishermen seeking tuna in the Pacific.  Sea turtles are similarly killed in Caribbean shrimp operations. Some animals are killed because, as carnivores, they compete with the human predator for the right to kill other animals for food, including wild game and domesticated species raised by livestock ranchers.  Alaskan hunters are eager to reduce the wolf population in their state because this animal is a predator of moose.   

"Cougars, coyotes and wolves are considered a menace to the cattle and sheep industries, and livestock ranchers have engaged in a large-scale campaign to exterminate them. Two species of wolves are now endangered, and very few wolves can be found in the United States except in Alaska and northeastern Minnesota. The relatively small number of eagles in the U.S. is largely due to the destruction of this species by livestock ranchers, particularly those in the sheep business.   

"Herbivorous animals that inhabit rangeland areas are also killed by the livestock industry because they compete with cattle and sheep for food. Large numbers of kangaroos are being exterminated in Australia, while in the United States livestock ranchers seek to destroy wild horses, wild burros, deer, elk, antelope and prairie dogs."   

"All Things Are Connected," the concluding chapter to John Robbins' Pulitzer Prize nominated Diet for a New America (1987), begins with a quote from (reincarnationist) Christian mystic Edgar Cayce:

"Destiny, or karma, depends upon what the soul has done about what it has become aware of."  

Vegan author John Robbins provides these points and facts in his Pulitzer Prize nominated Diet for a New America (1987): 

Half the water consumed in the U.S. irrigates land growing feed and fodder for livestock. The water that goes into a 1,000 lb. steer could float a destroyer. It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat, but 2,500 gallons to produce a pound of meat. If these costs weren't subsidized by the American taxpayers, the cheapest hamburger meat would be $35 per pound!

Subsidizing the California meat industry costs taxpayers $24 billion annually. Livestock producers are California's biggest consumers of water. Every tax dollar the state doles out to livestock producers costs taxpayers over seven dollars in lost wages, higher living costs and reduced business income. Seventeen western states have enough water supplies to support economies and populations twice as large as the present.

Huge amounts of water wash away livestock excrement. U.S. livestock produce twenty times as much excrement as the entire human population, creating sewage which is ten to several hundred times as concentrated as raw domestic sewage.  

Animal wastes cause thrice as much water pollution than does the U.S. human population; the meat industry causes thrice as much harmful organic water pollution than the rest of the nation's industries combined. Meat producers, the number one industrial polluters in our nation, contribute to half the water pollution in the United States.  

Overgrazing of cattle leads to topsoil erosion, turning once-arable land into desert. We lose four million acres of topsoil each year and 85 percent of this loss is directly caused by raising livestock. To replace the soil we've lost, we're destroying our forests.

Since 1967, the rate of deforestation in the U.S. has been one acre every five seconds. For each acre cleared in urbanization, seven are cleared for grazing or growing livestock feed.

One-third of all raw materials in the U.S. are consumed by the livestock industry and it takes thrice as much fossil fuel energy to produce meat than it does to produce plant foods. A report on the energy crisis in Scientific American warned: "The trends in meat consumption and energy consumption are on a collision course."

Nor can fish provide any help here, notes Keith Akers in A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1983). There are signs that the fishing industry (which is quite energy-intensive) has already overfished the oceans in several areas. And fish could never play a major role in the worlds diet anyway: the entire global fish catch of the world, if divided among all the world's inhabitants would amount to only a few ounces of fish per person per week.

The American Dietetic Association reports that throughout history, humans have lived on "vegetarian or near vegetarian diets,"; meat has traditionally been a luxury. Nathan Pritikin, author of The Pritikin Plan, recommended not more than three ounces of animal protein per day; three ounces per week for his patients that already suffered a heart attack.

Providing the entire world with a meat-centered diet is absurd. But what about providing only the affluent with a meat-centered diet?

According to Keith Akers, if the world population triples in the coming hundred years, and meat consumption continues, then meat production would have to triple as well. Instead of 3.7 billion acres of cropland and 7.5 billion acres of grazing land, we would require 11.1 billion acres of cropland and 22.5 billion acres of grazing land.

But this is slightly larger than the total land area of the six inhabited continents! We are desperately short of forests, water and energy already. Even if we resort to extreme methods of population control: abortion, infanticide, genocide, etc...modest increases in the world population would make it impossible to maintain current levels of meat consumption. On a vegan diet, however, the world could easily support a population several times its present size. The world's cattle alone consume enough to feed 8.7 billion humans. 

According to the editors of World Watch, July/August 2004:  

"The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future--deforestization, topsoil erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities and the spread of disease."

Voluntary abstinence from contraception, like celibacy, is fine as a personal religious observance, but not as public policy.

John Dyer
John Dyer

So, a study by The Lancet showed that contraception had the surprisingly  'green' side benefit of reducing the planet's population and the stresses to the environment that people add in developing countries.  Gee!  Who would have thought?