Supporters of family planning have been observing July 11 as World Population Day for nearly a quarter of a century. For nearly two decades, it has been little more than an opportunity to bemoan declining donor nation support for family planning and reproductive health plans. This year, thanks to Melinda Gates, we have something to celebrate on that day. Foundations, NGOs, and donor countries, led by the United Kingdom, will come together for an international summit on family planning. Unlike most global summits these days, this is one where the actions, or at least the commitments, will speak more loudly than the words.
The sponsors of this year's summit have set the goal of extending family planning services to another 120 million women in the developing world by 2020. If the commitments that are being made in London are sufficient to achieve that goal, it will represent a major turnaround. The number of women in the developing world of reproductive age continues to rise, but for most of the past two decades, donor nation support for family planning has been declining. As a result, international family planning assistance has been plummeting on a per capita basis. In many developing countries, particularly in sub-Sahara Africa, it has fallen by more than 50 percent.
Today, the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) estimates that there are 222 million women in the developing world who want to avoid a pregnancy, but who are not using a modern method of contraception. Extending family planning services to another 120 million women by 2020 won't achieve universal access to reproductive health services, and certainly not by the 2015 target set forth in the UN's Millennium Development Goal 5(b), but it's worthy of hearty applause.
"Win-win" propositions in this world are hard to find these days, but giving women the power to avoid an unintended or unwanted pregnancy falls into that category. If the goal of universal access to reproductive health was achieved, and 222 million more women in the developing world began using modern contraception to space or limit their pregnancies, the impact would be transformative. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that:
• Unintended pregnancies would decline by two-thirds, from 80 million to 26 million.
• There would be 26 million fewer abortions (including 16 million fewer unsafe procedures).
• There would be 21 million fewer unplanned births.
• Seven million fewer miscarriages would occur.
• Pregnancy-related deaths would drop by 79,000. Most of this reduction (48,000) would take place in Sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest levels of both maternal mortality and unmet need for contraception.
• There would be 1.1 million fewer infant deaths.
In addition, population growth rates in the developing world would fall faster than expected. While world population would continue to grow for a few more decades, world population--currently 7 billion--would likely stabilize around 8 billion, instead of rising as high as 16 billion by the end of the century. Realizing that slower population trajectory would dramatically improve our chances of reducing world hunger and severe poverty. It would even contribute to lower greenhouse gas emissions and slower rates of plant and animal extinction.
So what's the price tag for universal access to family planning? The Guttmacher Institute estimates that it would cost about $4.1 billion more a year to achieve those results. That's an exceedingly small price to pay for healthier families and a healthier planet. The commitments being made at the London family planning summit will stop well short of that funding level, but they represent a significant down payment.
The London family planning summit is genuine cause for celebration, but it may be short-lived: the world's single largest contributor to international family planning, the United States, may be in the process of reducing its commitment, not increasing it. Since the Obama Administration took office, U.S. support for international family planning has increased by about one-third, but a House Appropriations Subcommittee has approved a cut of nearly one-quarter for the fiscal year that begins October 1, 2012. A cutback of that size would go a long way towards negating the new commitments that are being made in London.
We can't let that happen. We had better keep the celebration short.