07/11/2013 08:19 am ET Updated Sep 10, 2013

Women at the Center of a Sustainable World

"We must mainstream reproductive health and rights into all development and poverty reduction plans. Investing in universal access to reproductive health is a crucial investment in healthy societies and a more sustainable future." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, July 2012

Today is World Population Day, and for me, that means a time to reflect on connecting the dots between women's rights, community development and the ability of our planet to care for us all. UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon's words ring ever truer this year.

As a person of faith, a professor and a mother, I want to integrate the very different conversations so many of us have about planning our families, caring for the earth, and respecting the many cultural traditions that make up the tapestry of human life.

I think of all the stories that make up the tapestry of my own perspectives on the planning of families and communities, and the shepherding of our natural resources. First, there's my own story. I came of age at a time when access to reliable birth control in this country wasn't what it is today. I was blessed to be able to plan for my two children, and not for more. I knew in my heart of hearts that what I could provide for two, I could not do for more.

I also know that for so many women and men today, that choice is not available because the basics of birth control are too expensive, or out of reach. These decisions are so personal, and when access is denied, the decision is taken out a family's hands. That lack of freedom has repercussions for all of us.

Reaching back to my mother's generation, I remember her sitting me down to tell me that she and my aunt had always, in fear, worried about what would happen to their daughters if we were to become pregnant accidentally. This was before Roe v. Wade made the choice of abortion possible, and the danger and threat of illegal abortion hung over my mother's and aunt's heads as they tried to raise their daughters safe and sound. Things were different back then, but they're very much the same for so many mothers and daughters around the world today.

One other story is an important thread in my tapestry: I have the privilege to meet a Peruvian family on a recent trip to that amazing country. They had six children, which seemed like a lot to me. But the parents told me they had each come from much larger families. For them, having six children was planned, and a small family. They had the means and the ability to plan their family, so that it was the size that worked for them. Being with them taught me so much, most importantly how crucial it is not to impose my values, but to follow the values of any given culture or country, and trust that women and men -- when given access to the basic tools of modern contraception -- will make the choices that work for their families.

In turn, those choices will benefit their communities, and our larger world. The fact is, the carrying capacity of our planet is an issue. When our human populations grow more slowly, that increases our ability to steward our resources more wisely. But this isn't about population control, it's about giving women and men the power to make their own decisions. In a startling statistic, if all the women in the world who currently want to delay pregnancy had access to contraception, world population would peak at 9 billion in 2050, instead of 12 or even 15 billion. That's a big difference -- both for people and for the planet.

In our church, Healthy Families and a Healthy Planet are two sides of the same coin. Today, on World Population Day, I'm looking at both sides with inspiration and appreciation for the world we could all share the ability to carefully plan one's family were available to all.