Foreign Policy Blogs

Family Planning as a Human Right

Celebrating newborn health

Last Wednesday, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released its annual State of the World Population report, in which it called family planning a “fundamental human right” and underlined the need for increased investment in and a “rights-based approach” to family planning. Citing studies that show improved health, societal, gender, and economic outcomes when family planning is available, the UNFPA made a strong business case for universal access.

Currently, the fund estimates that 222 million women in developing countries do not have access to family planning. Investing $4.1 billion annually and ensuring universal access would save $11.3 billion every year in maternal and newborn health costs. Increasing family planning access to 120 million women would prevent the deaths of 3 million infants. Furthermore, the UNFPA argued that family planning results in better economic development–linking the rise of many Asian economies in recent years to the fact that smaller families and better-spaced births have allowed breadwinners (male and female) to be more productive and to have more financial freedom. The fund also pointed to a study that estimated that if fertility rates in Nigeria dropped by one child per woman in the next 20 years, the Nigerian economy would grow by $30 billion. Further facts in the report demonstrated the dramatic effects that access to family planning can have on families, communities, and nations, from health and well-being, to women’s empowerment, to GDPs.

IRIN (the U.N. news agency) quoted the Executive Director of the UNFPA, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, who said, “Governments should invest in family planning; it is about human capital development…Donor economies can complement this investment, but sustainability comes from domestic economies.” Given the loss of appetite to pay for international development and the hot-button nature of family planning among donor countries (the United States in particular), this is a valid–and calculated–point. Of course, access to family planning decreases (legal or illegal) abortion rates, but that argument rarely seems to make much of a dent. The UNFPA also called for inclusive family planning–in other words, ensuring that not just those who “should” be having sex or babies get access, but that teenagers, unmarried women, and women living with HIV should as well. This is the first time that the UNFPA has called family planning a human right, and although it is a non-binding declaration that carries very little legal weight, it might have stronger policy implications and will certainly be on the agenda in 2015 when the U.N. discusses new sustainable development goals.

It’s hard to avoid sounding like a broken record on this issue, but family planning is an essential aspect of economic development, social stability, and equality. When women (and their partners) are able to decide when they have children, and how many they have, they are more able to stay in school and jobs, save and invest money, be empowered and right gender imbalances, and contribute to their communities and countries–socially and economically. Family planning is a basic human right, as the UNFPA has (finally) declared. It’s frustrating to have to repeat this time and again, but keeping women from accessing family planning makes zero sense from every angle, full stop.


Photo credit: Gates Foundation, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.



Julia Robinson

Julia Robinson has worked in South Africa at an NGO that helps to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and in Sierra Leone for an organization that provides surgeries, medical care, and support to women suffering from obstetric fistula. She is interested in human rights, global health, social justice, and innovative, unconventional solutions to global issues. Julia lives in San Francisco, where she works for a sustainability and corporate social responsibility non-profit. She has a BA in African History from Columbia University.