Just over a decade ago, the United Nations took unprecedented steps to meet the needs of the world's poorest by creating the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a blueprint for action that was agreed to by 189 nations and dozens of leading development institutions.
Looking back now, it's hard to believe that when the MDGs were originally developed, reproductive health was completely excluded. It's a true testament to how far we have come over the last decade that reproductive health and rights are now an essential piece of the United Nations' efforts to improve the lives of millions of people around the world.
Still, as we approach the expiration of the MDGs in 2015, the fight for reproductive rights is far from over. We must continue to make our voices heard and push to ensure comprehensive reproductive health services are a cornerstone of any plan to replace the MDGs. Although these issues can often seem far removed from our daily lives, there was a time not too long ago, when right here in our own nation, women couldn't access family planning services.
The issue of reproductive rights is very personal for me. Before being elected to Congress, I oversaw the Cook County Hospital System as a Cook County Commissioner for 10 years. Back then, women seeking abortion services would call the hospital phone number -- if they could find it -- and get a call back based on first letter of their last name. When the few who actually received appointments would show up to the hospital, staff would not even admit they had a clinic, much less where it was. After receiving abortion services, many women would be sent away without birth control or any sort of family planning counseling. This treatment was simply unacceptable.
Although things have changed a great deal here in the U.S., we still have to fight for women's rights every day. And the fight is even more robust in developing nations where women are marginalized, abused and discriminated against on a daily basis.
One of the most striking examples of the routine marginalization of women comes from a story told by Bill Gates. While on a business conference in Saudi Arabia, Gates was asked what the Saudis could do to become one of the top 10 countries in the world in technology. His response was simple: "Well, if you're not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you're not going to get too close to the top."
Empowering women by allowing them to choose when and how many children to have is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. As Catherine Russell, the U.S. Ambassador for Global Women's Issues recently put it, "It is widely known from a mountain for research, data and evidence, that when women participate economically...the economy would grow."
As the largest contributor to the United Nations and funder of international family planning, the U.S. is in a unique position to continue to lead the global agenda and place reproductive health at its core. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I have participated in the tough battles that must be fought to ensure funding for these vital programs continues. Sadly, there is a contingent of Congress bent on slashing all government investments and particularly those aimed at family planning. It is due to this obstructionism that we must make our voices heard and stand up for reproductive rights of women around the world.
As a husband and a father of two daughters, I want young women around the globe to have the same rights and opportunities as my daughters. If this dream of equal opportunity is to become a reality, the U.S. must continue to lead the way in formulating a United Nations development agenda that prioritizes reproductive health and rights in the decades ahead.