global health
6:25 pm
Mon July 9, 2012

Melinda Gates claims pushing birth control isn't controversial

Melinda Gates is promoting access to contraceptives around the world, and urging everyone to believe it's not a controversial step.

She's co-hosting a global summit on Wednesday in London, along with the British government.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation hopes to overcome religious and cultural resistance by saying birth control is simply one option that women want.

The foundation says simply: "There is no controversy." And, it has created a website called No-Controversy.com, where women can share stories of how birth control changed their lives.

Enter the Catholic Church

However, when the Catholic Church and some Muslim groups are actively campaigning against it, and when some U.S. states are blocking all funding for Planned Parenthood, saying birth control is not controversial might seem implausible.

Here’s how Melinda Gates explained her position, as a Catholic, on CNN last week:

"To me the contraceptive piece is not controversial. My roots, part of why I do what I do in the foundation, comes from that incredible social justice upbringing I had, this belief that all lives, all lives have equal value."

Gates made a similar point on the Colbert Report, telling Stephen Colbert, “We've made it controversial in the United States, and it doesn't need to be. In fact 90 percent of Americans say they find contraceptives morally acceptable. But, because we’ve made it controversial, it's come off the global health agenda.”

The basic argument

Giving women options for controlling when they have their children is not only morally right, but good health and economics policy, the foundation says. Women are less likely to die in childbirth. They're more likely to climb out of poverty. And, their children are more likely to have better lives.

Gary Darmstadt, the foundation's director of Family Health, gives one striking example. A woman he met while visiting India, who had five children by age 25, asked him to please take her newborn daughter back to the United States.

"And then she turned and looked at her two-year-old son, right at her feet, and said, 'In fact would  you take him, too? Would you take both of these children back with you? I can't possibly take care of them.'"

The woman said she couldn't educate or feed them all.

Overall, some surveys by the non-profit Guttmacher Institute (a respected, pro-birth control research organization quoted by the foundation) estimate 200 million women worldwide would like access to contraceptives.

Not necessarily 'the pill'

Darmstadt says birth control could come in the form of the pill, but for many women, particularly in developing countries, a daily pill is challenging.

Many might prefer an injected form that typically lasts three months. But, it could be whatever local leaders decide is acceptable, he says. Melinda Gates even said the "rhythm method" is worth discussing. That deference to local culture is part of how they hope to avoid controversy on a topic that touches sexuality and women’s rights.

Other potential controversies are detailed in a thorough article by Sandi Doughton in the Seattle Times.

At the global summit in London this week, the Gates Foundation will urge governments around the world to chip in. The goal is a $4 billion campaign to spread contraceptives in the developing world, with a portion of that going to research on new forms of contraception.