Today the Department for International Development and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will launch the London Summit on Family Planning, a landmark initiative to bring contraception to 120 million women worldwide.
With representatives from around 25 countries scheduled to attend, the event is intended to kick-start a global movement to address the unmet need for contraception faced by 215 million women worldwide, chiefly in developing countries, and to reverse two decades of neglect caused by social opposition to the issue, particularly within the Bush administration in America, but also in some Muslim countries and from the Catholic Church.
The projected $4 billion cost of the programme will be drawn from the health budgets of the 69 poorest countries with low contraception rates, with millions also pledged by the Gates Foundation for research into new and more efficient forms of contraception.
There is much to applaud here and the extent of unmet need in this area is indeed vast. 40% of pregnancies in developing countries are unplanned. The toll taken by repeated pregnancies among young women in particular is appalling, with girls in the poorest nations more likely to die in childbirth than finish primary school.
The ability to plan, space and delay childbearing is absolutely key to empowering women and girls, improving education and reducing poverty. The arrival of the contraceptive pill in the UK in 1960s, together with the advent of safe, legal abortion, has transformed the social, economic and educational prospects of women in this country.
But therein lies the problem which is troubling many reproductive rights advocates ahead of the summit: the glaring absence of any reference to the importance of abortion in the family planning equation. Without its inclusion, the commitments to women’s empowerment made by governments, foundations and NGOs are, if not hollow, then partial at best.
The whole area of sexual health and family planning is of course fraught with stigma and difficulty – political, religious and social. The organisers deserve praise for their willingness to enter such a toxic field. One of the key tasks ahead of the event has been to advance the message that there is No Controversy in contraception. But there is a long way to go before that is universally accepted.
Melinda Gates herself has spoken of the ‘soul searching’ involved in her decision to disobey the teachings of her Catholic faith to pursue the issue. To face down such doubt and opprobrium on a personal and institutional level takes courage.
But Gates has also been clear that “From the very beginning, we said that as a foundation we will not support abortion, because we don’t believe in funding it”.
For reproductive rights advocates this is beyond disappointing. It is effectively saying that the demands and the needs of some women are legitimate, but that others are beyond the moral pale; that we will risk capital and credibility in the fight to reduce unwanted pregnancy, but will remain silent each time that fight is lost and abortion is needed.
To have the might of the Gates Foundation and the Department of International Development turn world attention to the empowerment of women and their reproductive rights needs is a wonderful thing. Together their clout among medical, governmental and civil bodies is unrivalled.
But to have such global heavyweights weigh in on behalf of the 20 million women who have unsafe abortions every year and the 47,000 women who will die as a result could have a truly transformative effect.
So while we celebrate the arrival of the Family Planning Summit in the capital today we should keep the lives of these girls and women in mind too, and acknowledge that the event is both a welcome and wasted opportunity.