Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Faith-Based Organizations Critical to Family Planning

July 16, 2012

In the build-up to the London Summit on Family Planning, there have been a lot of opinions expressed on blogs, in main-stream media coverage, in peer-reviewed journals, and even exchanges on the streets and at the water cooler. And it has been great to see the conversations happening, even with the criticisms and resistance that we have sometimes felt from both conservative and liberal sides of the issue while preparing for the Summit.

At least people are talking about family planning; and with conversation may come action, something that has been lagging in this field for a couple of decades now.

It was extremely heartening for me to see the full support of a broad mix of religious leaders at the Summit and particularly their Interfaith Declaration to Improve Family Health and Well-Being, and the post-Summit meeting they held to discuss next steps. The declaration was signed by more than 250 religious leaders and their partners, including Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus, registering their support for family planning.

They called on governments and donors to reach out and partner with faith-based organizations (FBOs), which in turn would stimulate them to “bring their faith to action in enabling families to plan the timing and spacing of their pregnancies, consistent with their faith.” Passionate support for family planning clearly exists within members of many different religious groups.

The Interfaith Declaration recognizes that the methods of family planning may differ across religions or cultures, but there is fundamental agreement that all women and men have the right to decide for themselves based on their faith and conscience.

Many groups clearly support provision of information and methods for couples to control the timing and spacing of their children that is consistent with their own faith and needs. This belief is grounded in evidence showing that spacing births has enormous benefits for the health and well-being of the mom, baby and the family.

New evidence in The Lancet series on Family Planning, for example, notes that children born within two years of an elder sibling have a 60 percent increased risk of infant death. Health is considered a universal value and right. And part of having good health is being able to space children and provide for those children as best as possible.

The Interfaith Declaration emphasizes that the decision to plan a family must be consistent with one’s faith. It recognizes that the methods of family planning such as choice of contraceptive used may differ across religions or cultures, but there is fundamental agreement that all women and men have the right to information and contraceptive options and the right to decide for themselves based on their faith and conscience.

Another viewpoint points out that contraceptive use reduces the need for abortion, many of which lead to infection, bleeding and death of the mother. It is estimated that making family planning available to the 220 million women around the world who want to space or limit their births but are not using contraceptives would avert 54 million unintended pregnancies, 26 million abortions and 80,000 maternal deaths each year.

According to Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, “Family planning is morally laudable in Christian terms because of its contribution to family well-being, women and children’s health, and the prevention of abortion.”

Faith-based organizations can be active in supporting and advocating for family planning programs to reduce the number of abortions and maternal and child deaths, and improve the health of families. In fact, they already lead the way as important providers of a variety of health care and services, including family planning, in resource-poor settings.

For example, the Catholic Church has a long-standing tradition of providing healthcare for millions of Africans. It is estimated that faith-based organizations provide up to 40 percent of the total healthcare in many countries in Africa. The participation of these groups in the Summit publicly showed their commitment to involving communities and community leaders to inform people about family planning and to make services and supplies easily accessible.

Granted, not all religious leaders signed on to the Declaration. This effort to bring universal access to family planning will continue to meet resistance. However, during the Summit, many faith-based organizations were active in explaining the different reasons and rationale behind their support for family planning. Some focus on relief from suffering, the health benefits for mom and baby, some because it is a human right, and some because it reduces the number of abortions; ultimately, it becomes a matter of social justice on several fronts. But, no matter what religious affiliation, we can all agree that the focus of any argument is that all women should have equitable access to contraceptives and the ability to decide for herself whether and how she will use birth control. And each of us has a role to make that happen.

I look forward to the exciting times to come as the Summit has concluded, commitments have been made, and now we put the conversations that have been building up for the last few months into action to bring contraceptives to 120 million new users in the next eight years.

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