Women Power: Family Planning Saves Lives

The lack of access women, all over the world, have to birth control and abortion directly impacts on family and community structures. Where there is little or no access, there is an increase in maternal and infant mortality with the practise of unsafe abortions, occasionally infanticide, or the birth of unwanted children [particularly due to economics] causing untold problems in communities. There are cultural prohibitions against some forms of birth control but the lack of access to basic medical care [or even clean water] means that too many women are suffering from unwanted pregnancies and too many children are being born into families that can not support them. This is without getting into the issue of women being allowed to control what happens to their own bodies by having the power to control whether or not they conceive without being coerced via government policy or economics. Even ignoring the US governments cowardly policy, during the Bush administration, of not funding any family planning clinic that mentioned abortion, the impact on women’s lives has been horrendous.

There have been several high profile campaigns bringing media and world attention to this issue; notably the White Ribbon Alliance on Maternal Mortality whose global patron is Sarah Brown. Their information page contains numerous links to important research into maternal mortality, including the research into feeding infants during emergencies; a piece of information that the large multi-national corporations like Nestle like to pretend doesn’t exist. It might sound counter-intuitive but donations of formula and baby-food in disaster zones, particularly where access to clean water is non-existant, lead to increases in infant mortality. It is much safer for infants to be breastfed and any woman who has previously lactated can feed an infant as the female body is designed to respond to the nutritional needs of an infant. The White Ribbon Alliance works in partnership with other organisations in a variety of nations to advocate for safe motherhood as a basic human right.

The newest campaign on safe motherhood and reproductive rights kicked off with the International Reporting Project sending 11 bloggers to Kenya to report on reproductive health and population issues. The bloggers, including the very lovely Lynn Schreiber, spent the first day in Kibera, one of the largest slums in East Africa where population estimates range up to 3 million [although this generally considered too high]. This is part of the lead-up to The London Summit on Family Planning held jointly by the Gates Foundation and the UK government in July [with any luck Melinda Gates will shame Cameron into at least pretending to be human].

There are some obvious questions which need to raised when dealing with the issue of family planning, particularly in relation to issues of coercion and the, quite violent, history of population control polices such as those enacted in Nazi Germany and China not to mention places like California which had enforced sterilisation programs for those deemed unfit. Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty lists some of the coercive policies enacted in the US to prevent poor African-Americans from having children. It included the use of mandatory birth control in New Jersey in order to receive public benefits. In the 1990s. We may think of Nazi Germany and China when thinking of coercive population control but they are by no means the only guilty party and it isn’t “history”. Coercive reproductive measures happen everyday anywhere that access to birth control, abortion and medical facilities are not present [and this is without getting into the issue of rape and sexual violence which severely impact on women’s health, particularly in war and disaster zones].

This is why I was glad to see that Amnesty International, the Centre for Reproductive Rights, Action Aid and dozens of other human rights organisations, academics and women’s rights activists have signed this declaration:

We, civil society organizations working to promote women’s and young people’s human rights, call on world leaders on the eve of the “Family Planning Summit”, hosted by the UK Government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to ensure that sexual and reproductive health and rights are at the centre of all efforts to meet reproductive health needs, including family planning. Contraceptive information and services – “family planning” – form an essential part of the health services that women need throughout their lives. Any steps to increase demand for contraceptives must actively support efforts to improve comprehensive and integrated sexual and reproductive health.  

Contraceptives must be provided through primary healthcare, with full regard for women’s human rights and the specific needs of young and unmarried women and other groups. Our experience, built over decades of work around the world, has taught us that the failure to take actions guided by women’s human rights – to health, to life, to live free from discrimination among others – can have devastating consequences. Policies that accept or tacitly condone forced sterilization, the coercive provision of contraceptives, and the denial of essential services to the young, poor and marginalized women that need them every day have violated, and continue to violate, women’s human rights. 

Nearly twenty years ago, governments at the International Conference on Population and Development agreed that respect for women’s reproductive autonomy is the cornerstone of population policy. Any return to coercive family planning programs where quality of care and informed consent are ignored would be both shocking and retrograde. The Family Planning Summit must ensure that the clocks are not put back on women’s human rights: women’s autonomy and agency to decide freely on matters related to sexual and reproductive health without any discrimination, coercion or violence must be protected under all circumstances. …

Save the Children are also involved in the Family Planning Summit and have started a petition requesting that the British government make a firm commitment to the issue of family planning and safe motherhood. Please sign this petition to help women around the world give birth and raise their children with access to real health care [and education].

Free access to birth control, family planning and safe motherhood should be a basic human right with every woman having the control over her own body and her own family. Anything less is nothing more than a return to the normal coercive practises but this time tied up in a different fancy box with a UN ribbon on top.

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