What is contraception good for? The answer may seem obvious: As far back as the age of Cleopatra, who used gold pellets to prevent pregnancy, women have sought ways to plan the number and timing of their children. But critics of that idea go back just as far, and contraception remains controversial to this day.
As the world celebrates World Contraception Day on Sept. 26, it’s worth reviewing some of the ways that access to modern contraception improves not only the lives of girls and women, but also men, boys and society in general.
Here are the top five benefits, in reverse order of importance:
5. Access to contraceptives makes the world a better place. When families have the option, they can delay having children until resources are more readily available for adequate food, health care and education. If half the population is able to avoid unplanned pregnancy after unplanned pregnancy and is free to be more productive, local and national economies cannot help but benefit. Smaller families compete less for resources, which can help ease a country’s political tensions and move us all toward a more sustainable world.
4. Contraception saves money. For every dollar invested in family planning, at least $6 is saved for other uses. Families with fewer children can invest more of their income in each child as well as in improving their personal lives and communities with additional education, vocational training, farming, land and housing, or business ventures.
3. Control over her body is a woman’s human right. Personal autonomy is a critical part of the definition of freedom. The idea of human rights is meaningless for girls and women who lack the right to decide for themselves, freely and without coercion, when and with whom to have sexual relations, or when and whether to become pregnant. While it remains controversial that access to contraception gives a woman power and allows sex for pleasure without anxiety, it is a basic human right to have autonomy over one’s body.
2. Contraception empowers girls and women. A woman who wants two children will, on average, spend about five years of her life trying to become pregnant, being pregnant or recovering from pregnancy — and about 35 years trying to avoid pregnancy. Contraception makes that possible. Yet giving women a tool that allows planning for a life beyond motherhood remains controversial in some areas of the world. Some 39,000 girls under 18 are married off daily and often become pregnant immediately, leaving school and abandoning their personal dreams. Using contraceptives can allow women and girls to plan their lives and demand the education, training and work that will benefit society. Contraception makes it possible for girls and women to show the world all of what they can do.
1. It saves lives and improves health, and not just for women. This is the most important benefit of all. Presently, some 222 million women in developing countries want to delay or stop childbearing but are not using modern voluntary family planning. Investing $8.1 billion a year to meet that need would reduce unintended pregnancies by more than 66 percent and prevent 30 percent of maternal deaths. It would avert 20 percent of newborn deaths and reduce unsafe abortions by 40 percent. Investing in voluntary family planning would also increase productivity for girls and women, developing a more sustainable world. Those figures don’t even count the lives of both men and women that condoms alone could save by preventing HIV and AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, nor the lives of orphans and children who now die at rates higher than those of children whose mothers survive.
While the benefits of contraception seem obvious, decision-makers have not acted accordingly. Women still account for the majority of the world’s poor — especially in countries with the lowest prevalence of contraceptive use. Young people under 30 account for half the world’s population, and every year millions of adolescents enter their “reproductive age.” A 2012 study from the Guttmacher Institute found that 645 million women of reproductive age, from 15-49 years old, in the developing world are now using contraceptives — 42 million more than in 2008. However, nearly half of the increase is due to population growth rather than a higher rate of contraceptive use, highlighting an unmet need for access to reproductive health services.
The good news is that contraception has seen a lot of innovation. New technologies like long-acting reversible contraceptives, vaginal microbicide rings and one-size diaphragms are assisting in the prevention of unintended pregnancy, as well as sexually transmitted infections. Global partnerships such as Family Planning 2020 are also paving the way for women and girls to decide freely — and for themselves — whether, when and how many children they want.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development in Beijing, which called for universal access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care and services. It also marks the final year before the 2015 deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals. As the international development community begins to review and reframe its objectives, the time is right to ensure that planning for the post-2015 agenda includes a renewed emphasis on the benefits of sexual and reproductive health and rights, including voluntary family planning and the urgent need for expanded investment in it.
Contraception is a vital part of the sexual and reproductive rights of girls and women. It’s a powerful tool that should be wielded much more strongly in order to spur development, enhance global security, and let girls and women live the full lives they want and deserve.
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