Melinda Gates says her success is "the direct result of contraceptives"

Melinda Gates says her success is "the direct result of contraceptives"
Bill and Melinda Gates Seth Wenig/AP
Bill and Melinda Gates Seth Wenig/AP

Melinda Gates has long been a vocal advocate of contraceptives, but in an editorial published in Fortune Tuesday, she credited birth control for her ability to enjoy the career and the life that she's had.

"It’s no accident that my three kids were born three years apart — or that I didn’t have my first child until I'd finished graduate school and devoted a decade to my career at Microsoft," Gates wrote. "My family, my career, my life as I know it are all the direct result of contraceptives. And now, I realize how lucky that makes me."

The piece published in tandem with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's annual letter, which, among a number of interrelated causes, discussed the necessity of expanding global access to family planning services. 

Melinda Gates speaks on stage during the Fast Company Innovation Festival 2016.
Melinda Gates speaks on stage during the Fast Company Innovation Festival 2016. Brad Barket/Getty Images

"Saving children’s lives is the goal that launched our global work," Gates wrote in the letter. "It’s an end in itself. But then we learned it has all these other benefits as well. If parents believe their children will survive — and if they have the power to time and space their pregnancies — they choose to have fewer children." But the children they do have, the letter stressed, are better cared for, healthier, generally better educated and more frequently equipped with the tools to improve their family's economic situation.

Gates added that, "For the first time in history, more than 300 million women in developing countries are using modern methods of contraception." She and her husband hope to expand access by an additional 120 million in the next three years through Family Planning 2020

Calling contraceptives "one of the greatest antipoverty innovations in history," Gates noted that when mothers can space out childbirths, their children are more likely to thrive. Mothers, too, get the chance to set themselves and their children up for more successful lives — just as Gates herself did.

Bill and Melinda Gates talk to reporters about the 2016 annual letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Bill and Melinda Gates talk to reporters about the 2016 annual letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Seth Wenig/AP

There is a striking disparity in birth control use between the Western world and developing nations, according to a 2015 report by the World Health Organization — while 75% of North American women in partnerships used contraceptives, compared to only about 40% of women in developing countries and 33% of women in Africa. 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, developing countries saw roughly 185 million pregnancies in 2008, 40% of which were unintended. Roughly half the unintended pregnancies led to abortions. Nearly 50,000 women worldwide died from unsafe abortions in 2008, according to Guttmacher, and at higher rates in poorer countries with restricted family planning resources. And, as the Gates' pointed out in their letter, poverty and pregnancy are inextricably linked. 

"No country in the last 50 years has emerged from poverty without expanding access to contraception," the couple wrote. 

The Gates Foundation has traditionally funded research into contraceptive methods, including the compact shot the couple discussed in the letter. It's a longer-acting method that proves more effective in communities where women might have to travel long distances to their nearest clinic. Funding contraceptive innovations like this, she said, is imperative for global health.

"If you care about giving children a chance at a healthy future, if you care about giving women a chance to take their families from poverty to prosperity, and if you care about giving poor countries the chance to become rich ones, then you must care about contraceptives," Gates wrote.