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.