Earlier this year, the Melinda Gates announced that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would be turning its focus to supporting contraceptive availability in developing countries. This was based not on the argument that it was for population control, but in an effort to provide choices for women and to save maternal lives. On Wednesday, the amount of money to be pledged to this program was announced at a summit in London on family planning.
But first, earlier this week, a study was released from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health supporting Gates' perspective that the lives of mothers could be saved if contraception were more widely available. The study found that up to 272,000 maternal lives could be saved each year from the use of contraceptives.
"Promotion of contraceptive use is an effective primary prevention strategy for reducing maternal mortality in developing countries. Our findings reinforce the need to accelerate access to contraception in countries with a low prevalence of contraceptive use where gains in maternal mortality prevention could be greatest," said the study's lead author, Saifuddin Ahmed, MBBS, PhD, associate professor in the Bloomberg School's departments of Population, Family and Reproductive Health, and Biostatistics, in a statement on the research. "Vaccination prevents child mortality; contraception prevents maternal mortality."
Here's how the estimates were achieved:
The Johns Hopkins researchers used a counterfactual modeling approach to replicate the World Health Organization's (WHO) maternal mortality estimation method, and to estimate maternal deaths averted by contraceptive use in 172 countries. Data for the analysis were drawn from the WHO database for maternal mortality estimation, survey data for contraceptive use and information on births, female population aged 15 to 49 years and general fertility rates from the United Nations World Population Prospects database, 2010.
According to the research, 10 to 15 percent of the 358,000 maternal deaths each year are due to unsafe abortions in developing countries. Save the Children also touts that by preventing unwanted pregnancies, 570,000 newborn children and one million teenage girls could also be saved. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children argues though that focusing funding on food for the starving is what saves lives:
There are real and urgent needs that newborns and young child need help with, and these should be the priority of Save the Children, not pushing contraceptives to stop future children existing.
"Unwanted fertility and unmet contraceptive need are still high in many developing countries, and women are repeatedly exposed to life-threatening pregnancy complications that could be avoided with access to effective contraception," said Amy Tsui, PhD, senior author of the study and director of the Bloomberg School's Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health, in the press release.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported Melinda Gates saying the issue of contraception is "far less controversial that people make it." She pointed to a Gallup poll showing 90 percent of Americans found contraceptives morally acceptable and 82 percent of Catholics even finding it acceptable. The Gates' foundation established a website "No-Controversy.com" where people can pledge their support and share their own stories about birth control. The foundation also released this video last week entitled "Where's the Controversy in Saving Lives?":
The goal of the London Summit on Family Planning, according to Reuters, is to raise $4 billion to make contraceptives available to 120 women in developing countries by 2020. The Guardian reported on Wednesday that "rich countries" had pledged $2.6 billion over the next eight years.
Gates, a Catholic herself, has been criticized by pro-life sites for this stance. For example, in May, Life Site News wrote that this "blatant attack on Catholic sexual morality" will be a challenge for Catholic leadership. It also calls out a type of contraceptive noted by Gates as a potential abortifacient:
Gates specifically names Depo-Provera, a hormonal contraceptive that causes abortions by preventing implantation of the newly-conceived human life in the uterine wall. Several studies have linked the controversial drug with bone loss (osteoporosis), which has earned it a “black box” warning from the FDA. Studies have also linked Depo-Provera with increased risk of blood clots, breast cancer, cervical cancer, increased herpes susceptibility, memory loss, and other disorders.
The Guardian interviewed Gates on Wednesday where she explained how she reconciled her Catholic faith with her stance on contraceptives. Gates says the Catholic Church does support a form of contraception called natural family planning (Note: The Catholic Church would consider this a form of acceptable birth control but would not call it contraception). But, she acknowledges, there are more "modern tools" to prevent pregnancy.
"For me, what I'm trying to emphasize is the social justice piece of our mission, and that's really where my roots come from," Gates said. "And then make sure that we all have space to do the work that we care about doing on the ground. On all methods. And let a woman choose what it is she would like to use."
Watch that interview:
Many argue in favor of birth control citing population growth. This is not what prompted the Gates Foundation to hone in on this issue. According to the Seattle Times, Gates said in her TEDxChange presentation in April, "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, to save their children's lives and to give their families the best possible future." Watch that presentation here: