07/13/2012 09:19 am ET | Updated Sep 12, 2012

Planning for the World's Future

Last year the world's population reached seven billion for the first time. And this past Wednesday, June 11, was World Family Planning Day, designated by the UN to mark its goal of offering universal access to reproductive health services by 2015. These issues are inherently connected, of course. They also have a profound resonance for women. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) states that reproductive health problems remain the leading cause of illness and death for women of childbearing age worldwide. To put it in stark figures: 800 women die in childbirth every day.

That's why it's so exciting to see organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation choosing to promote family planning. In collaboration with the UK government, the UNFPA and a host of other organizations and stakeholders, they placed it at the center of the agenda at a groundbreaking conference in London yesterday, where $4.3 billion was pledged. The summit called for global political commitments to family planning, with the aim of enabling 120 million in the world's poorest countries to gain access to contraception. This access is critical because it is not just about family planning -- it is a profound statement in support of women's rights.

Women's rights, and their individual personal safety and well-being, are at the core of this issue. All too often their environment puts these rights at risk. As Melinda Gates pointed out in an interview with the BBC, women may not have access to nearby clinics where they can receive contraceptive and family planning services -- or they may fear the reactions of their husbands and families for seeking them out. And it's not only in the developing world that environmental and social conditions exert such deep pressures on women. Recent political debates in the US have shown that in America too, access to family planning -- abortion, and even contraception -- is not something we can take for granted.

The political, fraught nature of US discussions has had repercussions across the world. Until recently, US foreign policy blocked funding for NGOs that so much as discussed safe abortions, and entirely defunded UNFPA. The result? Illegal abortion rates in countries like Kenya shot up. The Obama administration lifted these policies, but as continued votes by the US House of Representatives to cut American funding of UNFPA demonstrate, we cannot be complacent when it comes to these issues.

It is vital that women be empowered to choose when they have a family. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, speaking at the London Family Planning Summit, outlined the multiple benefits that access to contraception brings about: it improves the financial situation of women, their families and their countries; it enriches the lives of the children they choose to have; most importantly, it dramatically lowers their chances of dying in childbirth or through illegal abortions. He described a woman's right to choose as a simple incontrovertible fact: "Women should be able to decide freely, and for themselves, whether, when and how many children they have." And to do so, they need access to education and safe family planning services.

This topic simply must be at the forefront of conversations about global development and our shared future. On a personal level, I heartily agree with a remark Melinda Gates made not too long ago on Twitter: "I believe every girl & woman deserves the chance to determine her own future." It's a stance that I support with all my heart.