Across Africa, leaders are starting to recognise that birth control saves lives. But the US still treats it as a political football
On the poor outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, we sat before six imams in an airy mosque. They are holy men, respected community leaders, and, lately, birth control champions. “Family spacing,” they called it, as they cheerfully explained why Islam supports it. “What’s good for a woman is good for her family, and for her society. We want healthy societies.”
Meanwhile, 4,000 miles away and two weeks earlier, Barack Obama met quietly with Roman Catholic leaders to discuss the feasibility of including religious and moral exemptions to birth control coverage in a new healthcare bill. Never mind that 98% of sexually active Catholic women in the US currently use modern contraception (pdf).
I was in Dakar for the International Conference on Family Planning, where thousands had convened to talk about birth control. At registration, we received conference bags as per usual, which included a pack of emergency contraception – the thin white box tossed in amid flyers, pens, and condoms as the basic supply, that it is. Across the Atlantic a week later, US secretary of health and human services Kathleen Sebelius announced that she was overruling – for the first time in history – the Food and Drug Administration’s recommendation that emergency contraception be available to individuals under the age of 17 without a prescription. The contrasts are striking.
The US is increasingly out of sync with developed and developing countries worldwide on these issues. Others get it: access to birth control is a linchpin in efforts to save lives. But the US continues to treat the issue as a political football. When people can choose whether or when to become pregnant, everyone benefits. Women are healthier, and their babies and children more likely to be fed, educated and healthy. The workforce is more robust; the government spends less on healthcare – study after study says so. The breadth of birth control’s benefits are matched only by the chronic magnitude of unmet need for it. Still today a staggering 215 million women around the world want, but lack, access.
Meanwhile, in October, the US house of representatives advanced a bill to cut $40m in funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the largest public sector provider of birth control in the world. The bill was just one part of larger efforts to undermine reproductive health, which included gutting family planning programs in the US and reinstating the “global gag rule” to punish developing countries for addressing unsafe abortion.