The U.N. has taken a bold and progressive step by declaring access to contraception a human right, proposing that everyone in the world should be able to determine when and if to have children and saying only when that’s the case can a society grow and flourish.
In a State of the World Population report subtitled, “By choice, not by chance: family planning, human rights and development,” the U.N. explains why access to birth control is essential to the societal and economic health of developing countries:
"Studies have shown that investing in family planning helps reduce poverty, improve health, promote gender equality, enable adolescents to finish their schooling, and increase labourforce participation.
When a woman is able to exercise her reproductive rights, she is more able to benefit from her other rights, such as the right to education. The results are higher incomes, better health for her and her children and greater decision-making power for her, both in the household and the community."
The report makes it pretty clear that unwanted pregnancies are bad for women, bad for families, and bad for society. But in many ways, the report fails to recognize the causes for and scale of the lack of access to birth control around the world.
“Today, family planning is almost universally recognized as an intrinsic right,” the report says, as if the lack of access to contraception were something that everyone recognizes as a problem to be addressed, if only everyone could get together and work out the logistics. But in fact, many societies around the world are far from recognizing contraception as an intrinsic right. In the Philippines, where overpopulation and poverty are major problems, the Catholic Church is still exercising its influence on the government to block attempts to provide access to contraception for poor women.
The report also approaches the issue as if everyone in developed countries already has access to birth control, and as though it’s only in developing countries that progress needs to be made.
“The ability to decide on the number and spacing of one’s children,” the report continues, “is taken for granted by many in the developed world and among elites in developing countries.” Anyone who’s been following the news in America over the last year knows that the battle for access to contraceptives is bitter and constant. While access is certainly greater in America than the Philippines, the roadblocks to sufficient access to birth control are similar in both places: Religious leaders and the politicians who cater to them would rather see women raise children they don’t want than provide access to birth control. Rather than a building block of a functioning society, they see birth control as an indication of loose morals.
Religious groups are deeply opposed to ending unwanted pregnancies with abortion, and yet they don’t want women to have access to contraception that could prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place, and therefore prevent abortions.
“Addressing the unmet need for family planning worldwide would avert 54 million unintended pregnancies and result in 26 million fewer abortions,” the report says. “Research also shows that where family planning supplies, information and services are widely available, abortion rates are lower.”
It seems logical that if these religious influences want to avoid abortion, they should support the alternative, but they don’t. In both America and the Philippines, the religious leaders who condemn contraception preach abstinence, which doesn’t account for the fact that some of these unwanted pregnancies happen to married women, or the fact that it’s the 21st century and unmarried people have sex.
If they wanted to just wring their hands and moralize to their followers, that would be one thing. But unfortunately, religious leaders have considerable influence on politics, not just in the Philippines but also in America, which was founded in part to avoid just that. And that religious influence stands in the way of attempts at legislation that would provide access to contraception to the poor.
“In developed countries too, high levels of unintended pregnancy exist,” the report acknowledges, “especially among adolescents, the poor and ethnic minorities.” Access for the poor is the biggest hurdle in general; it’s where it’s needed most in the Philippines, and where America is falling short of where this report seems to propose developed countries ought to be.
“Because it is a right,” the report says, “voluntary family planning should be available to all, not just the wealthy or otherwise privileged.” And yet, even in America where individual rights are paramount, birth control isn’t viewed as a right, but as superfluous and indulgent commodity to which only women who can afford to pay dearly for it should have access.
The report is absolutely correct in proposing that increased access to contraception is necessary for the success of developing nations, but if it’s considered a basic human right and an indication of development and a healthy society, we have to wonder why we’re so far from sufficient access in America.