Melinda Gates, wife of billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates, recently caused controversy when she pledged billions of dollars to extend “affordable, life-saving contraceptive services to an additional 120 million women in the world’s poorest countries by 2020.”1 Speaking at the recent London Summit on Family Planning, Gates had returned from a visit to sub-Saharan Africa with stories of women who snuck away from their husbands to obtain birth control shots at a local clinic, only to be turned away as the clinic had run out of the product. “My goal is to get [family planning and birth control] back on the global agenda,” Gates told Newsweek.2
The issue of contraception is important around the globe, as Gates suggested, evidenced by the sheer magnitude of people affected by the choice to use it. Currently, “about 358,000 women and 3 million newborns die each year worldwide due to pregnancy and childbirth. Ten to 15 percent of those numbers are believed to be deaths caused by unsafe abortions.”3 Gates believes that these mortality rates could be lessened significantly if promotion for birth control and contraceptive supplies were available in developing countries.
However, as a self-proclaimed Catholic woman, Gates has also had to contend with her own religious beliefs when choosing to support the extension of contraceptive services worldwide, and ultimately chose to support “social justice,” something she felt was not fully visible in the church’s stance on contraception. The Catholic Church is steadfastly opposed to the use of artificial birth control and is quite outspoken about this issue. Melinda Gates’ pledge to provide birth control to developing nations is only one example of the long debate on whether access to artificial birth control should be available or promoted in developing nations. One large issue in the debate, particularly on the African continent, is the use of birth control to protect against sexually transmitted diseases—particularly the HIV/AIDS virus.
On a 2009 flight to Cameroon for his first papal visit to Africa, Pope Benedict XVI told reporters that AIDS is, “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem.”4 The unwaveringly negative opinion of birth control held by the Catholic Church has caused much controversy in respect to developing nations in recent years. And, though African patronage is considered vital to a growing Catholic church, the African experience with AIDS has been quite destructive. AIDS has killed more than 25 million people since the 1980s.5
Just as HIV/AIDS has been consistently devastating, the Catholic Church has been consistently and staunchly against the use of birth control since the debate began. In his 1968 Encyclical Letter entitled Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI outlined the Catholic Church’s opinion of artificial methods of birth control, writing that, “it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.”6
The Church’s condemnation of artificial methods of contraception have recently caused heated debates surrounding the issue which, in developing nations like some of those on the African continent, could mean the difference between life and death. Rebecca Hodes, who works as an AIDS activist for the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, responded to the Pope Benedict XVI’s dismissal of condoms as a preventative measure by saying that, “his opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans.”7 However, the spread of AIDS is not the only issue that must be addressed in the battle over birth control; unintended pregnancy is also an important issue in the birth control debate.
A fifty-two page report created by the Guttmacher Institute in New York urged for new methods of birth control to reach 148 million women in three regions of Africa and Asia where there are 49 million unintended pregnancies every year resulting in 21 million abortions. The study states, “sub-Saharan Africa, south central Asia and southeast Asia are home to 69 percent of women in the developing world who have an unmet need for a modern method…seven in 10 women with unmet need in the three regions cite reasons for nonuse that could be rectified with appropriate methods.”8
The study also noted the various reasons these women did not choose modern preventative birth control methods. These reasons included health fears, opposition to contraception and opposition from partners. The findings of the study concluded that, according to co-author Jacquline Darroch, “the need for contraception [in these areas] requires not only increased access and counseling, but the development of new methods that better meet women’s needs.”9 “In total,” the study states, “one in four of the latter’s total of 195 million women had an unmet need for modern birth control.”10
Birth control’s main purpose, the limiting of procreation, is heavily debated from both religious and logistical perspectives. On a grand scale, the choice whether or not to use birth control for the limitation of procreation, too, could lead to the stifling of a nation’s population or to the growth of a nation through population boom.
In Nigeria, where the Nigerian president is actively considering a mandate on birth control within the nation he governs, the issue is being played out on the national level. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan stated that too many uneducated people are having too many children and urged citizens to only have as many children as they can afford.11
Writing in response to President Jonathan’s statements in regards to birth control, African journalist Sola Odunfa describes her own belief that having children is a mainly financial concern, “If you are rich you may have as many [children as you want],” Odunfa writes. “On the other hand if you are a ‘common’ man or woman, that is you do not own a house and car and you must seek an appointment before you may see your bank manager, you must limit your family size to what the political elite dictate. Otherwise you all starve and your children end up living under the bridge.”12 Odunfa’s warnings against procreating beyond a family’s financial means are ultimately routed in the fear of the devastating effects of poverty in the face of overpopulation.
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the United Nations has estimated that the population could grow by as many as 240 million by the year 2050.13 So, the President’s decision to back birth control is based on his desire to elevate the quality of life of his people. However, he recognizes the sensitive nature of the issue in regards to religious practice. “We are extremely religious people… It is a very sensitive thing,” Jonathan stated. “It is difficult for you to tell any Nigerian to number their children because… it is not expected to reject God’s gifts.”14 A BBC-created guide dissecting mass birth control programs, such as the one suggested in Nigeria, cites overpopulation as an important worldwide concern in the fight against poverty, despite religious opposition to artificial contraception:
Many people think that God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” can be taken too far. It’s generally accepted that over-population will seriously damage the earth and the lives of most people on it. Large increases in population have already damaged the environment and condemned many people in Africa, Asia and Latin America to poverty.15
Religious motivations as well as economic stability are both important factors in the debate over birth control, but Nigerian journalists and politicians are not the only pundits weighing in on the controversial issue. Many Nigerian citizens also have strong opinions about the desire to mandate birth control. In the face of these concerns, native Nigerian Chinwuba Iyizoba is appreciative of the proposed population growth in Nigeria. “Western media are shrilly calling for Nigeria to put a check on her population growth,” Iyizoba writes. “No way, sorry. We Nigerians are rejoicing.”16 Iyizoba cites the benefits of financial security for aging parents, keeping birthrates at replacement level and the maintenance of a dynamic youthful workforce.17
Iyizoba describes population growth within his nation as the prerogative of himself and other citizens of his nation. There are various anti-contraceptive activists who, like Iyizoba, understand the elective use of birth control an important right, and the imposition of contraceptive methods by outside parties is an invasive and imperialistic act. Some find rich nations’ funding of birth control in third world countries as a performance of imperialistic control which not only over-steps personal human rights when mass birth control programs are implemented but also executes forms of gender bias and eugenics.18
Gender discrimination in the implementation of mass birth control programs is clear; it is most often women who must, unjustly, bear the burden of implementing mandated birth control methods, which inherently chastises female fertility as something negative and something to be controlled. Similarly, mass birth control programs, which, as President Jonathan of Nigeria suggested, urge impoverished and uneducated peoples to stop having or to have fewer children are exercising a form of class bias that seeks to reduce specific ethnic or socioeconomic groups. Thus, the governmental imposition of birth control on a nation’s population may be considered a violation of human rights.
A compilation of factors has recently brought the debate over the distribution and use of artificial methods of birth control into the spotlight. Gates’ pledge to fund the distribution of birth control in developing countries is only the most recent event in a long and tumultuous battle over the right to choose. The Vatican’s unwavering stance on the issue of artificial contraception has been the subject of much controversy in the face of the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic and issues of population growth and poverty.
The push for birth control on the part of national governments, like that in Nigeria, has also been a source of pressure on the populations of those living in developing nations. Though President Jonathan and Melinda Gates seem to have the benefit of the people in mind, anti-birth control activists view large-scale efforts to mandate birth control as efforts to excise groups of people or lower classes in developing nations.The culmination of these factors has led to a very divided public, with some, like Chinwuba Iyizoba, adamantly opposed to mass birth control programs and others, like Melinda Gates, who have pledged time and money to the cause of expanding the distribution of birth control worldwide.
Though powerful and important people and organizations are taking charge and issuing statements as to whether artificial contraception should be utilized, the true issue is in regards to who has the right to choose: organizations or individuals? And, if it is the individual who has the right to make the decision to use birth control, should they, then, be allowed access to contraceptive methods? And who should ultimately be responsible for supplying methods of artificial birth control—private organizations like the Gates’ foundation, or national governments? For now, these issues remain unresolved and the two sides of the debate remain polarized while the Vatican staunchly opposes the use of artificial contraception and the Gates foundation continues with their plans to fund birth control in developing nations.