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International Family Planning not an Issue for Political Football

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As the U.S. Congress intensifies its debate on long-term deficit reduction and the FY 2012 Foreign Operations Appropriation Bill, let us all hope that the crisp breezes of autumn, the first falling leaves, and the signs of optimism emerging from FedEx Field don't encourage our lawmakers to once again make international family planning a political football.

This plea could, of course, be made every year -- in fact almost every day -- but I feel it especially strongly at this moment. Early this week, I joined my colleagues at CEDPA in welcoming 24 incredible reproductive health champions to a training workshop funded through the generous support of the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. These women from Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania are all striving to improve reproductive health services in their countries. Some work with their governments on family planning service delivery, some are NGO community mobilizers, some are policy analysts, others are representatives of the media and a few are parliamentarians. But, all truly and deeply understand the importance of investing in family planning because they have seen the results firsthand- and all are preparing to return to their countries as stronger advocates and empowered "doers."

In their first day, they identified common issues, as well as those that are unique to their own countries. They quickly outlined ways to add and amplify their voices by augmenting the voices of other women in their countries. They highlighted the need for a vast increase in investments on family planning and reproductive health services by their own governments and the international community. They also emphasized the need for the international community to more genuinely support host country-led efforts. Varying donor initiatives and changing priorities -- as well as the many restrictions and regulations such as the "on and off" Global Gag Rule -- make it extremely difficult for countries to truly own their programs and thus be accountable to their own citizens.

As these women enhance their voices over the next two weeks, we in the United States must do the same. We, too, must reach out to our elected leaders to argue for the importance of robust funding for international family planning and reproductive health- and for fewer legislative obstacles.

On Monday evening, I attended an event in New York for the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, an initiative led by the Aspen Global Health and Development Program. The Council is comprised of 16 distinguished leaders, from former heads of state to senior officials from national and multinational institutions to long-time leaders from civil society. Each of the leaders told their personal story. None were more gripping than Dr. Fred Sai of Ghana, who has done so much within his own country and internationally to advance family planning, saving the lives of countless women and children. No one was more passionate in explaining why he has dedicated himself to the reproductive health needs of women.

Even now, I can hear him talking about his childhood in a home filled with women. As a boy, he saw aunts and cousins dying far too often from early and too frequent pregnancies. He also saw the effects on children, as he illustrated in explaining to us the origins of the term "kwashiorkor" malnutrition. The term refers to the second or subsequent infant and preference it is given by the nursing mother. The firstborn is withdrawn from the breast in favor of the second born. When births are not adequately spaced, that often leads to malnutrition -- and, too often, death -- for the first. Dr. Sai saw all this firsthand as a child. He learned as a boy that delaying first pregnancy until a woman's body is mature, and spacing of pregnancies saves lives. And, now as a dynamic octogenarian, he is still pleading for African leaders to push harder to provide expanded family planning services and to fill the huge unmet demand for such services by women in their countries.

We must all join Dr. Sai, the other global leaders and the exceptional 24 women at the on-going CEDPA workshop in advocating for robust support for international family planning. It is not a partisan issue. That was clearly articulated by Michael Gerson in his superb op-ed piece a few weeks ago in The Washington Post. Nor should it be a political football. Women around the world deserve better from all of us.