Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a Catholic, is telling governments to dismiss the controversial link between contraception and population control and explicitly rejects Catholic social teaching along the way. Her rhetoric is part of her multi-billion dollar foundation’s new “NoControversy” campaign to reinforce universal access to birth control as a priority in the developing world.
Speaking at a TedxChange conference in Berlin, Germany, Gates argued that contraception has been mistakenly associated with population control, abortion, forced sterilization, and mortal sin and insisted they are “side issues” that “have attached themselves to the core idea that men and women should be able to decide when to have a child.”
Yet even Gates herself admitted that for years population control and contraception have become synonymous in the developing world, with countries like India “adopt[ing] unfortunate incentives [and] coercive methods as part of their family planning programs” in the 1960s and indigenous women in Peru being “anesthetized and sterilized without their knowledge” as recently as the 1990s.
Though these coercive practices may have fallen out of favor, it may be far harder for organizations like the Gates Foundation to separate their own promotion of contraception entirely from population control.
In their Annual Letter for 2012, the Gates Foundation draws a direct connection between “unsustainable” population growth and poverty and posits contraception as an essential tool to ensuring that “populations in countries like Nigeria will grow significantly less than projected.” Even recent history shows that governments that make fertility reduction a priority can easily slip into coercive modes such as what Gates recognized happened in Peru not long ago. The US government has said that even goals and timetables for contraceptive use are inherently coercive.
Gates was particularly critical of the Catholic Church. She singled out Catholic social teaching as an obstacle to access to contraception throughout the world, stating that “as a practicing Catholic,” and “in the tradition of the great Catholic scholars,” it is “important to question received teachings,” in particular “the one saying that birth control is a sin.”
Along with the Gates Foundation, organizations like UNFPA blame religious beliefs and contraception’s association with population control for creating a situation in which over 215 million women in the developing world experience what they call an “unmet need” for contraception. They define “unmet need” as “women and men who say they want no more children or want to delay their next birth by more than two years, but are not practicing contraception.”
However, claiming that women who do not want children immediately and who report not using contraception as in “need” of contraception is misleading, as was shown in a landmark study by economist Lant H. Pritchet, currently professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard.
The study finds that access to contraception has little effect on fertility and that women will have the number of children they choose whether they have access to contraception or not. The study also explains that factors such as dislike for the side effects of contraception and religious objections are just as important as the cost and availability of contraception.