London: The Next Battleground for Women
This week, the British Department for International Development (DfID) and the Gates Foundation are hosting a summit on international family planning. Their goal is to raise money and get people talking about the need to bring contraception to those who still have an unmet need for it in the developing world. For many international development practitioners (including yours truly), contraception represents a critical tool in the ability of women to change not only their individual lives but the lives of their family members and on a broader scale the future of their communities.
Apparently, to opponents of the summit, contraception represents “a blatant attack on morality”.
I understand opponents of abortion. I respectfully disagree with them, but I understand where they are coming from. I can see how one might make the argument that a fetus is alive and needs to be protected. This does not change my pro-choice stance, but I get the whole idea of pro-life.
Sadly, that same logic does not apply to contraception. Quite frankly, if you don’t like abortions, you should LOVE contraception. I’m being completely serious. You should LOVE contraception because less unwanted pregnancies means less abortions.
I’m not the only one thinking this way. Andrew Mitchell, the British minister for international development, stated that “…it makes economic sense and, if we are successful, it would mean 100 million fewer unintended pregnancies, 200,000 lives saved, 50 million abortions averted.”
50 MILLION ABORTIONS AVERTED. Pro-life advocates, why are you not all over this concept?
Because, of course, that’s not how the protesters are thinking.
Family planning in the developing world is a huge deal-~-so huge, in fact, that I have had to read multiple books and write a 15-page paper on it to even BEGIN to understand the implications of contraception in developing countries. The UN has a whole program that is just dedicated to dealing with this issue. One of USAID’s first programs was to distribute abortion kits.
Why is this the case? For those of you who don’t know a ton about contraception in the developing world, let me break it down for you. Traditional values that emphasize large families make a lot of sense when you have incredibly high infant mortality rates and you are on a farm and need the labor supply. The large families make a lot LESS sense when you’re dealing with cities: there isn’t enough space, things are more expensive, and NGOs provide access to care that decreases infant mortality. This means that people end up having babies they can’t afford.
That’s not why the protesters are upset, of course.
I think we all know why they’re upset. Heck, some of them have said it on this blog: they think that sex without the intent to have a child is immoral, and it is enabled by birth control.
I am about to give you all of the reasons why this is just not a good argument:
1. People have sex. They have sex even if they receive abstinence-only sex education. They have sex even if they don’t have protection. So not educating them and giving them the power to control the consequences of this is foolish. I’m sorry, it just is.
2. Men leave. In developing countries, this is especially true. Men leave to find jobs. They leave for other women. They leave at an alarming rate, which means a woman who may or may not have had any say in getting pregnant is now stuck with children she can’t take care of, because she doesn’t have the support of her husband anymore.
3. Poverty and unintended pregnancies are linked. Commercial sex work is extraordinarily common in developing countries, especially in low-income areas. On top of that, poor girls are more likely to engage in sugar daddy relationships (as I discovered when I was doing my research on the ground in Kenya), which means that they are less likely to use condom. That means that contraceptives are the only way that they can control the outcomes of these relationships. You think it’s immoral to have sex without the intention to procreate? I think its immoral to condemn someone to starvation, and sometimes this is the only way that girls in these areas can find.
4. Illegal abortions are dangerous. I can’t say this enough. And since we can’t force countries to legalize abortions, the BEST thing we can do is make them less necessary by providing education and contraception.
That’s the other thing: don’t think that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and DfID are just throwing pills at women who may or may not want them. Community education is a huge part of this kind of development work. Many women are very open to birth control once they see that it won’t hurt them, and once they see that it will let them control their lives.
5. Unintended pregnancies are a huge factor in girls dropping out of school. This creates greater barriers to gender equality and also helps ensure that these girls stay poor, and that their children also grow up poor. It perpetuates a cycle of poverty that development practitioners and policy makers alike want to end.
6. A lot of these women didn’t have a say in having sex or getting pregnant. I think this is what a lot of the opponents of contraception are missing. They did not get a say. They did not choose this. Marital rape, even though it is illegal in many of these countries, is still a rampant problem. Even if it isn’t illegal, the fact is, many wives are raped by their husbands, and because they don’t have access to any contraception, they end up with pregnancies that they may not be physically ready to handle, and children that they may not be able to deal with (this is exacerbated by reason #2)
At the end of the day, access to contraception has the potential to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of women around the world; it has the potential to help families break out of poverty by giving girls more time to get an education and find jobs before they become mothers; it can help societies adjust to increased urbanization. It’s not an attack on morality, it’s a tool to restore human dignity.
And I’m just sorry these protesters can’t see that.
For more information, please check out this article.