Why Family Planning? An International Perspective
Family planning has been a cornerstone issue of the feminist movement for several decades, but is also one of the most contentious. While it’s relatively easy to articulate the logic of equal pay or the harms of domestic violence, there are numerous social taboos surrounding family planning, not the least of which is the fact that family planning often includes the issue of abortion.
Nevertheless, family planning is a cornerstone issue of the feminist movement for a reason. It goes beyond bodily autonomy-~-though bodily autonomy is certain part of it-~-and it impacts a number of other things that feminists have been fighting for. I recently published a post about the current, ongoing fight for access to family planning services in the United States, and have previously written on it numerous times, but as Women’s History Month winds down, I want us to consider, for a moment, the implications of family planning not just domestically, but around the world.
In the United States, bodily autonomy is often the focus of the rhetoric surrounding discussion of family planning, and this makes sense in global context as well. It’s especially important with regards to the unspoken power politics of sex in many parts of the world, where women may not have a say in whether or when they have sex. In this sense, birth control is a subversive tactic that allows women to reclaim control over what happens to their bodies at least with regards to the consequences of sex, which can be significant for women who might otherwise lack full bodily autonomy. But it is also important insofar as birth control allows women to make decisions about when they choose to have children, and to control for the consequences of pregnancy. Spacing out births, and delaying age at first birth, both improve the chances that a woman won’t suffer from complications or die from pregnancy-related causes. That’s not insignificant, given that over half a million women a year die of pregnancy-related causes, and over 90% of those deaths take place in the developing world (source: World Health Organization). In fact, a woman in sub-Saharan Africa has a 1 in 13 chance of dying due to childbearing-related complications.
Birth control is significant for a couple of other reasons though. Being able to delay pregnancy doesn’t only have health implications, it has economic ones as well. Young women who are able to prevent pregnancy are more likely to finish school and find work before they enter marriage or bear children. Being able to prevent childbearing may also prevent young women from entering abusive or otherwise unstable marriages. Having children may make it difficult for women to engage in the workforce, particularly during and immediately after pregnancy, and this may make women feel trapped in relationships they would otherwise choose to leave. Birth control in the United States has been responsible for up to 30% in the increases in women’s wages. It could have a significant impact on the ability of women to advance economically and socially in other countries.
Many of those same arguments apply to the subject of abortion, also lumped in with family planning. Abortion obviously is not used to prevent a pregnancy, but it is used to terminate unwanted pregnancies, often early on. Abortions offer an option for women who cannot afford to have children, or whom would be likely to be abused or otherwise harmed as a result of their pregnancy, to terminate it before such problems can arise. Abortion also affords women who were unable to access birth control the opportunity to forgo childbearing. Access to abortion further reduces maternal mortality by offering an option to save the mother’s life in the event of severe complications due to pregnancy. Its importance is worth recognizing, not just in the United States, but in countries around the world where women may have less access to fertility regulation.
Of all the things that could be done to improve international development, investment in family planning is by far one of the most cost effective. Uganda’s first lady, Janet Museveni, famously noted that “family planning is to maternal health what immunization is to children’s health”, a cost-effective and targeted way to reduce a major problem in society. Family planning has helped to prevent over 100,000 abortions and over 54 million unwanted births around the world, allowing women to regain control of their bodily autonomy. It has also prevented some 220,000 maternal deaths per year-~-and decreases in maternal mortality also coincide with decreases in infant and child mortality and increases in primary school enrollment and children’s health across countries.
Family planning is literally life-saving, and certainly worth investment by the international community. Unfortunately, even the progress that has been made in this field is not enough. Some 222 million women continue to experience an unmet need for family planning, resulting in millions of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies each year, which place women’s lives at stake. Much family planning funding was diverted to HIV/AIDS, an equally worthy cause-~-but one which has ultimately begun to drown out the issue of women’s health. If you’re looking for a single issue that can genuinely change the lives of women and their families and help to change communities and societies, look no further, because family planning is it. We can only hope that it remains a priority as the United Nations and the rest of the international community begin to shift towards their new development priorities as of 2015.