On Wednesday July 11th, Britain hosted the 2012 Family Planning Summit in London. As David Cameron received a standing ovation and worldwide commendation for his pledge to increase Britain's contribution to worldwide family planning to £1bn, Melinda Gates made the controversial decision to donate $560m to enhancing family planning services. Due to her position as a Catholic and philanthropist, she has naturally attracted scathing opposition from the Vatican, as well as those who follow the teachings of the bible devoutly.
Melinda Gates's decision has also attracted criticism from the media. Al Jazeera's Manuela Picq has accused her of taking a poorly targeted approach to women's health in the developing world, and has gone as far as to suggest that she ignores other health issues. Considering the Gates foundation has addressed issues such as sanitation, vaccinations, and global development, it can hardly be argued that she sees family planning as a "silver bullet"--which is what Picq suggested. In addition to this, an article in The Catholic Herald stated that "Artificial contraception, by virtue of the resulting collapse of marriage, has had an impoverished effect--even if the affluent consider it a routine accessory". The publication has also suggested that her tactics are aggressive, that this is a cloaked attempt to cull the population of the developing world and that she is promoting the immoral demise of society. Those who make such arguments attempt to strengthen them by suggesting that women have access to contraceptives, but choose not to use them; this is then cited as proof that women have a choice that they do not want or need.
Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Yes, it is true that millions of women worldwide have access to contraceptives that they do not access; this is not for lack of trying. As cultural and religious barriers stand between women who would like to limit the number of children they have, many find that they cannot access condoms or the contraceptive pill. For many women in the developing world, doing so can lead to being sitgmatised. While many men see contraceptives as being against God's will for their sexual organs, many communities believe that they promote promiscuity and extra-marital affairs. The aim of the 2012 family planning conference is to broaden options so that women find taking control of their reproductive health easier. For example, if they can access Depo Provera at a clinic once every three months rather than struggling to hide the fact that they are taking the contraceptive pill on a daily basis, they can control their reproductive health without being stigmatised.
The donations made at the conference will also address other issues. In some areas of the world, women must obtain their husband's consent before seeking contraceptives. In many cases, contraceptives are sought, but stockpiles are too low to supply those who need them. By pledging to address the issue of contraceptives financially, David Cameron, Melinda Gates, and other donors have made campaigning and stock piling easier.
For teenage girls worldwide, deaths due to pregnancy and childbirth complications act as the biggest killer. As you read this, a woman will be dying as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications. While some of these deaths will be due to poor birth management, a lot can be prevented by giving women greater freedom over their sexual and reproductive health. More access to contraceptives will mean less illegal abortions, which contribute to 15% of maternal deaths worldwide. Contraceptives will allow women to increase the amount of time between each child they give birth to, which will increase their life expectancy.
Contrary to the claims of those who would like to depict Melinda Gates as a woman who is contributing to the moral demise of the world, she is taking a bold step towards saving millions of lives. In an interview that preceded the summit, Gates stated that she battled against her own moral conflict as a Catholic, but ultimately believes in "...not letting women die, I believe in not letting babies die, and to me that's more important than arguing about what method of contraception [is right]".