At a TEDxChange webcast event last week, Melinda Gates announced that she would dedicate the next 30 years of her life to advocate for and support family planning. Asserting that birth control should not be a controversial issue, Gates discussed the implications of the dearth of family planning programs and services in the developing world–particularly sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. Without access to or an acceptance of modern contraceptives and family planning services, rates of maternal and child mortality and poverty are higher and education levels are lower. Beyond hundreds of thousands of needless deaths–Gates put the number of women dying in childbirth from unwanted pregnancies at 100,000 and babies in the first year of life at 600,000–there are long-lasting development repercussions to inadequate family planning. Gates pointed out the discrepancies in contraceptive use globally, saying: “A billion people use birth control without hesitation…But for an idea that is broadly accepted in private, birth control generates a lot of opposition in public…As a result, birth control has almost disappeared from the global health agenda. The victims of this paralysis are the people of sub-Saharan Africa and the poorest parts of South Asia.”
Led by U.S. right-wing political pressure that has resulted in development funding policies like the Global Gag Rule and the evisceration of health budgets, funders have soured on family planning programs. Gates took these funders to task (gently) at an event that obliquely confronted the United States and its power in shaping the global agenda. Gates insisted on the common sense of family planning services and deplored the conflation of family planning and contraception with abortion, saying: “We need to be clear about our agenda. It is not abortion. It is not population control. We are talking about giving women the power to save their own lives and their children’s lives—and to give their families the best possible future.” Of course, safe and legal abortion services should also be available globally, but given the vitriol in the United States and elsewhere around abortion, this was a savvy move on Gates’s part. Her speech came across as a measured, prudent argument for universal access to family planning and birth control. With the surfeit of mud-slinging inaccuracies (if not outright deceptions) around family planning in the political sphere, it is a welcome change to hear a powerful voice lent to a woefully neglected cause.
You can watch Melinda Gates’s talk here, or below: