Honoring Our Mothers by Changing the Dialogue

05/12/2011 02:38 pm ET | Updated Jul 12, 2011

Mother's Day this past weekend was a great chance to pause and think about the many wonderful mothers I've known in my life -- from my mother, who so selflessly gave so much to others throughout her life, to the many other aunts and friends who have served as "proxy moms" and helped me over so many of life's hurdles. And, let me not forget my many "mom friends" who have somehow balanced work and family lives to raise such great kids. Thanks so much to all of you.

In the process of thanking the many mothers in my life, I began to think about a larger gesture that might give mothers everywhere a real reason to celebrate. A few weeks ago, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a new study: "Family Planning and U.S. Foreign Policy," by Isobel Coleman and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. In writing a reasonable, factual and balanced report, they gave the greatest gift to mothers around the world: a rational argument for investing in family planning.

By stating simple facts and stepping away from the emotional rhetoric of the past 25 years, they have paved the way to a possible new policy consensus -- and to improved lives for women, mothers and children globally.

What are some of these simple facts?

  • The health, security and well-being of any nation's children and families depend to a great extent on the health of women in those families.
  • Access to family planning services -- and thus the ability for women to voluntarily space and limit the number of children they have -- contributes to significant decreases in maternal, newborn and child deaths, and to decreases in abortions and abortion-related injuries. Let me repeat: Access to family planning reduces abortions and saves lives. Studies have shown that meeting the unmet need for family planning services could reduce maternal deaths by approximately 35 percent, abortion in developing countries by 70 percent and infant mortality by 10 percent.
  • U.S. Government foreign assistance for family planning does not include any support for abortion; nor does it support coercion or incentives. It only supports voluntary contraceptive services.
  • Spacing of pregnancies is especially important for the health of women and children. Pregnancies occurring less than six months after a previous birth increase the risk of maternal death by 150 percent. If all mothers were to space pregnancies by at least 36 months, it is estimated that 1.8 million deaths of children under five would be prevented annually. In India alone, if birth spacing were increased to 36 months, infant mortality would drop by 32 percent.
  • Family planning is a smart investment. Research shows that fulfilling today's unmet need for family planning would cost an incremental $3.6 billion, but would also lead to substantially reduced costs for maternal and newborn health services as some 50 million fewer women became pregnant unintentionally. There would be net savings of $1.5 billion.
  • Family planning programs have been very successful -- e.g., a number of countries that received substantial support from USAID for family planning in the past, including Mexico, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand, have seen an increase in the use of modern contraceptives. Best of all, these programs are now self-sustaining.
  • There is still much work to do. Research shows that some 215 million women in union and of reproductive age globally want to avoid pregnancy, but their needs are not being met. The largest unmet needs are in southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

These are just a few of the facts outlined in the report. They should be driving the dialogue on why investments in international family planning are critically important. They should "trump" the old and tired rhetoric and myths that have too long influenced policy in the U.S. We owe that to our mothers and to the many, many women around the world who depend upon sound and rational dialogue and decisions in the United States.

In this week after Mother's Day, each of us should send a copy of this valuable report to at least ten additional people! Maybe then, we can all make a difference. Maybe then, reason will prevail and U.S. Government funding for international family planning, including for UNFPA, will be preserved and even increased in future budgets.

Certainly, all of us at the Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA) will do all we can to elevate the quality of the dialogue, to amplify the voices of women from the developing world to the debate and to improve services in countries as diverse as Nepal and Nigeria. That is my commitment this Mother's Day. Please join me.