The Gates Foundation's push for family planning comes to an apex this week with the London Summit on Family Planning. Melinda Gates has been just about everywhere to promote access to family planning. Her stops have included TED and the Colbert Report. Yesterday it was a chat with CNN.
Gates's message has been largely the same. An example from her CNN column:
The vast majority of women in the United States use birth control. Some of us may even consider it a minor annoyance. Sometimes we forget to take our pills. The side effects can be painful. But we put up with it because it's so important to have the power to determine our future.
I didn't fully appreciate how much contraceptives changed my life because I never lacked access to them.
That is, I didn't fully appreciate them until I got involved in global health and learned that hundreds of millions of women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia don't have access to contraceptives. The lack of birth control is more than a minor annoyance. It can be a significant barrier to a better life. When I learned what many women in poor countries faced, I asked myself: What would my life have been like if I hadn't been able to use birth control?What's interesting is that this not new territory for the Gates Foundation. An excellent article in the Seattle Times points out that the foundation tried to take on family planning 15 years ago, but a lack of success led to a shift in focus. Now family planning is back with a vengeance and some are not too happy. From the Seattle Times:
The move puts the Gates Foundation on a collision course with the Catholic Church and elements of the religious right. A Catholic herself, Melinda Gates is attempting to defuse the controversy by framing her crusade in terms of health and individual choice. In her travels around the world, she has said, reliable supplies of contraceptives are among the things poor women ask for most.(snip)
[G]iven the wide support for birth control around the world, even among many Catholics, the foundation should be able to weather the storm as long it continues to make it clear it does not support abortion, said Duff Gillespie, a family-planning expert at Johns Hopkins University.
Even after shifting its focus to vaccines and disease, the Gates Foundation continued to spend an average of $30 million a year on family-planning programs. And in his first annual letter on the foundation's work, Bill Gates explained that boosting child survival will lead to a drop in birthrates, as parents see more of their children live to adulthood.
Gates' statements inspired a reply from Sinding and several others, who jointly composed a letter pointing out that improvements in child survival will, indeed, nudge birthrates down — but that the shift can take decades if people don't have access to contraceptives.
The Gates Foundation responded courteously to that first letter, Sinding recalled. "We interpreted that as a polite kiss-off."
But after a second letter, which pointed out the many health benefits to women and children of spacing pregnancies and limiting family size, the foundation reached out for more information. Family-planning veterans were also invited to brief Bill Gates and his staff and, most recently, Melinda Gates.
Large family planning campaigns will bring up outdated Malthusian concerns and extreme claims that family planning is a form of population control. The messaging has been intentional to steer clear from the issue of abortion.
As far as I have seen, the thrust of the argument is to say that women deserve the right to decide when get pregnant. There are tools available to make that possible, but an estimated 200 million women lack adequate access. Couching the discussion as one that is not controversial is a clever move in a rhetorical sense. It seemingly disarms people who may disagree by saying that it is a universally accepted right.
Coverage continues with a special section in the Financial Times solely devoted to the issue of Family Planning. The articles are worth a glance and it includes a letter signed by global organizations in support of the summit.