NEW YORK, New York—A high-profile group of current and former presidents and prime ministers today called on global leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City to provide long-promised voluntary family planning services to 215 million women in the nations that are expected to fuel the greatest population growth the world has ever seen.
In a letter sent to every leader represented at the UN conference in New York, the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health asked world leaders to double their investment from $3.1 to $6.7 billion to provide women in poor countries with the family planning services they were promised 17 years ago at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.
"It is unacceptable that in 2011, more than 215 million women around the world want to plan their families yet lack access to modern contraception," the Council members wrote to world leaders. "Investments in reproductive health are vital to global development, with widespread benefits for maternal and child health, poverty reduction, women’s empowerment, poverty reduction, the environment, and security.
The 16 members of the Global Leaders Council include the current and former heads-of-state of Brazil, Ireland, Finland, Latvia, Liberia, Malawi, New Zealand and Norway; singer Annie Lennox; and prominent public health officials, among them the former president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the United States Surgeon General.
Meeting at the Rubin Museum in New York this evening, eight members of the Council reminded decision makers in developing and donor nations that the right to health and to family planning can be one of life and death; every year, 358,000 women – most of them in Africa – die from pregnancy-related causes.
“The global population is expected to reach the seven billion mark this year and 10 billion by 2100, if it remains unchecked. The failure to address population growth in poor countries has become a global problem, one with long-term implications for the economic, environmental and political health of the entire world," said former Irish President Mary Robinson, who fought a political battle to make contraception legal in Ireland in the early 1970s. "We on the Global Council intend to press for reproductive health rights that include the right to freely and responsibly determine the number, spacing and timing of children without coercion, discrimination and violence."
Development targets for poor nations hinge on access to family planning
Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, joined President Robinson and her colleagues at today's event, which was moderated by ABC news anchor Juju Chang. Osotimehin noted that economists and social scientists are increasingly agreeing on the pivotal role of reproductive health and rights in attaining the UN's Millennium Development Goals, which commit to significantly reducing poverty and improving the health of women and children in the world by 2015.
"Unprecedented action is required if we want to provide history's largest population of young people with the choices they need to shape a bright future – for themselves and their countries," Osotimehin said. "I call on governments and world leaders to move from words to action, and to live up to their promise to ensure universal access to reproductive health, including voluntary family planning."
Hoping stories will inspire change
The nine members of the Council open their event against the backdrop of a two-day conference in New York on global health that begins today, saying they hope their stories and struggles will influence current global leaders, whether in developing or donor nations.
Some of the Council members’ stories, which will be formally published in March, hark back to a time in Europe when lack of contraception led women to seek out dangerous and illegal abortions, and one story describes the frustration of an African doctor, who would regularly break the law when women in his country asked him for help with family planning.
"In Britain in the 1940s, not even the condom was available very readily, and I saw the result of this restriction when I was there as a medical student,” said Dr. Fred Sai, former President of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and a physician who received his medical training in the United Kingdom. “I would do pathology or postmortems, and I saw horrible things on those slabs as a result of botched abortions. These were girls who had gotten pregnant and could not face it.”
President Robinson describes in her story how unprepared she was for the powerful forces that worked against her efforts to pass legislation to legalize contraception in Ireland as a young senator.
“What I didn't fully understand was the whole cultural context in Catholic Ireland in 1969-1970,” Robinson said. “I was denounced from pulpits; it was a very tough time. I felt very isolated and there was one time, I think, when I really felt, ‘Can I go on with this?’ And I had to steady myself and say, ‘No, it is very important.’ It was very important then; it's very important now.”
Leaders urged to live up to old promises to level playing field for poor nations
In September 1994, governments meeting at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo reached an unprecedented international consensus on the issue of family planning, agreeing that it should be provided as part of a broader package of reproductive health care.
Though many countries have tried to implement the recommendations of the Cairo conference, 17 years later, progress is uneven; millions of women continue to lack access to family planning services in regions where a population explosion is expected to add another three billion people to the planet by 2100.
"Family planning is one of the most effective interventions in global efforts to save and enhance women’s and children's lives; and to improve the overall health and sustainable development " said Dr. Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director General, Family, Women's and Children's Health, WHO. "The Commission on Information and Accountability for Women's and Children's Health included access to contraception as a critical indicator of progress. A major obstacle for meeting the needs for family planning, which is also a human rights issue, have been divergent perceptions that negatively affected access to funding for family planning in the developing world, where hundreds of thousands of women die every year of pregnancy-related causes. This is a life or death issue."
The UN reports in a 2011 study that among women using contraception in the UK, 84 percent have access to modern methods. In the US, that rate is 73 percent. In Ghana, however, where Sai grew up and once practiced medicine, only 16 percent of such women are using modern methods of contraception.
Women who have access to family planning have fewer children, and the ones they do have are healthier and better educated. Long-term, scientists have reported, investments in reproductive health are reflected in lower carbon emissions and a reduced likelihood of civil unrest, as smaller families help lift communities out of poverty and reduce pressure on food security.
“It is an unfortunate truth that progress for the world at-large does not necessarily mean progress for Africa,” Sai said. “In 1980, almost a quarter of maternal deaths occurred in African countries. Today, that figure has doubled to more than half. All but one of the thirty countries with the worst maternal mortality statistics are in Africa. And while countries like Ghana and Rwanda have seen a steady decline in maternal deaths over the past 15 years, other countries, such as Malawi, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, actually have higher maternal mortality rates than they did in 1990. This issue is about our family members and friends; it is about our economies and our countries; and it is about the survival and future of our children.”
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