I was among the first generation of women in the 1960s to experience the miracle of the pill just at the age when I was wanting to start having sex. All I had to do was take a pill every day, I was told, and hey presto, I didn’t have to worry about getting pregnant if I didn’t want to, and it worked! But oh, if only it had all turned out to be that easy! Like one in three women in the UK today, a country where contraceptive prevalence is almost as high as it can get, I needed an abortion several years later. Again, I was lucky, the 1967 Abortion Act meant I was able to get a legal abortion. The lesson is simple—while contraception continues to be a miracle, because it helps people not to have children if and when they don’t want to, it is not enough on its own and it never has been.
Family planning has been out of the news for a long time, and suddenly it’s back. Welcome! Bring out the red carpet! Women and men need contraception now as much as they ever have, and young women and men who are beginning to explore their sexuality together need contraception and condoms more than anyone. But there has been a lot of water under the bridge since family planning was promoted as the cure-all for the world’s ills in the 1960s when the pill came out, and everyone needs to study that history anew so that the same mistakes, of which there have been many, and the same narrow vision, are not repeated.
My generation of women’s health activists, along with an entire generation of researchers, service providers and policymakers who brought their knowledge together at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, got the world to recognise that the need for the means to control fertility, which is as old as history itself, was part of a much broader set of needs related to reproduction and sexuality, and that these were inextricably connected. These include: being able to have sex without fear of negative outcomes, being able to have sex if and only if we want to and only with whom we want to, being able to have the children we want, being able to get pregnant at all, being able not only to survive pregnancy but also still be in good health, being able to have a safe abortion without fear of death or condemnation when an unwanted pregnancy occurs, being able to protect ourselves from sexually transmitted diseases, and being able to get treatment for all the many causes of reproductive and sexual ill-health, which start with menstruation and menstrual problems, and continue into old age with things like breast and prostate cancer, and uterine prolapse.
There is indeed a huge unmet need in today’s world, but the unmet need for contraception is only a fraction of the unmet need for sexual and reproductive health, and for sexual and reproductive rights. The results we should be working for encompass every aspect of the issues I have just named, and those in turn must be seen in the even wider context of the right to health, social justice and an end to poverty and violence—which were the real point of the Millennium Development Goals—not the measurable targets.