Supporting Family Planning Abroad: A Sound Investment for the US and a Way to Save Lives


Currently, more than 215 million women around the world want access to quality reproductive health care but don’t have it. On Monday, July 11th, we recognized World Population Day, and I was reminded that this unmet need is only likely to increase when the world’s population crosses the 7 billion mark in the fall. Global investment in international reproductive health and voluntary family planning is one of the best ways to save maternal and infant lives, and build sustainable communities.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ recent report, Family Planning and U.S. Foreign Policy,” meeting the unmet need for family planning would result in a 32 percent decrease in maternal deaths, reduce abortion in developing countries by 70 percent, and reduce infant mortality by 10 percent. However, the reproductive health needs of many women in developing countries remain unmet. Sometimes, this occurs even when subsidized contraceptives are sitting unused and expiring in warehouses miles away.

The supply chain challenge in developing countries can seem both trivial and absurd, but health care product commodity chains remain a central and formidable obstacle to achieving universal access to reproductive health and medical progress in general. On a recent trip to Ethiopia for a Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition’s conference, I saw firsthand how limited financial resources, inadequate systems and supply chains, and poor coordination often keep contraceptives from getting into the hands of those who need them.

Well, what can be done? One solution is much more coordination between donors, governments, the UN, NGOs, the private sector and other actors – which the conference addressed. Overall, access to contraception can help a family to choose family size and prevent maternal deaths, save newborn lives, and enable families to provide food and educational opportunities for the children they do have. For governments, providing access to voluntary family planning is a crucial way to help build healthy families and sustainable communities. Providing contraceptives is also cost-effective.

The return on investment for supplying voluntary contraception seems so self-evident, but yet it is surprisingly difficult to garner resources for effective deployment.

What can we Americans do? One step is asking our government to continue to provide foreign assistance that includes provision of voluntary family planning and to support – not defund – organizations such as the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). We also can push for a rights-based framework for development that takes into account an individual’s needs.

If you need another reason for why our support for international reproductive health and voluntary family planning is important, let me tell you about Makdes, a young woman I met in Ethiopia. A rural health extension worker serving more than 5,000 people, she shared that many of the women who come to her clinic prefer injectable contraceptives like the Depo-Provera shot because they are long-lasting and woman-controlled. Unfortunately, in spite of the demand, Makdes often doesn’t have the antiseptic wipe or glove to administer the shot. Isn’t this a solvable problem? Can’t manufacturers package the shots with the required accompanying health products?

So, let’s forget the divisive culture wars raging in Washington and remember the story of Makdes. The lives – and health – of the 215 million women around the world who want access to quality reproductive health care are counting on it.

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