Family planning summit neglects women's real needs

Melinda Gates speaking at the opening of the London Summit on Family Planning Credit UK Department for International Development CC BY SA 20 CNA Catholic News 7 12 12 Melinda Gates speaking at the opening of the London Summit on Family Planning. | U.K. Department for International Development (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A critic of the London Family Planning Summit says that the international gathering does not address the true needs of pregnant women in developing countries, lacks safeguards against coercive campaigns, and includes some countries and organizations that want to promote abortion access.

Wendy Wright, interim director of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, attended the summit as a credentialed reporter. The July 11 summit sought to raise $4.3 billion for family planning in Africa and southeast Asia. Wright reported that the summit met its goal of $2 billion from developing countries and exceeded its goal from donor countries, which pledged $4.6 billion.

Wright warned that statements at the summit indicate these commitments could strengthen the push for abortion.

"Both France and Sweden said that they believe that reproductive and sexual health includes abortion," she told CNA July 11.

"Many of the other countries are trying to be careful, particularly the U.S., in not mentioning abortion because it's really controversial. But France said that we won't avoid the difficult discussions. And that means access to safe abortion services."

She said she wondered whether the African countries at the summit were aware that abortion is part of the agenda of "at least some donor countries."

Summit attendees included African heads of state and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a video for the event, whose sponsors include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The summit's NGO partners include abortion providers like the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International.

Wright said countries' representatives at the summit sounded "almost scripted" in their commitments to increase access to family planning, increase money spent on family planning, and provide information.

Although the summit's stated goals  include the reduction of maternal and child mortality, Wright pointed out that contraception "does nothing to help pregnant women or newborn children."

She said that maternal mortality can be addressed through funding skilled birth attendants, emergency obstetric care, antibiotics and other basic medical care. It can also be reduced by building better roads to clinics and by providing cell phones for emergency use.

"These women do need help. The problem is that the solution that the Gates Foundation is offering is not the one that's going to help women."

While summit backers also say the effort will reduce the abortion rate, Wright was skeptical. She said there is "no evidence" that providing family planning will reduce abortion. Eastern Europe, she noted, has "very high" rates of contraception access and a "very high" abortion rate.

The summit will help fund efforts to overcome barriers to access to family planning, which Wright said includes requirements for parental involvement and religious beliefs. This caused concern for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute in part because such barriers are also obstacles for abortion access.

Wright also questioned whether the summit overlooked the issue of accountability.

"There didn't seem to be concern that accountability ought to include ensuring that there's not coercion," she told CNA. "Those of us who know the dark history of population control are very concerned about this Gates  summit."

Wright said the summit's partner organizations like the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Marie Stopes International and the Population Council were involved in the population control movement, which has had a history of coercion with the poor and uneducated.

One main organizer of the summit, the United Kingdom's Department for International Development, funded a reproductive health program in India that had the goal of making childbirth safer for women and expanding access to family planning. That program now faces charges that it coerced patients.

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However, U.K. officials showed a "very lax attitude" about the charge, Wright said.

Associates of the program allegedly sterilized uneducated rural men and women who may not have known what they had agreed to. Participants used soiled sterilization tools and performed sterilizations on pregnant women, causing miscarriages.

Some summit speakers implied that family planning can distract from real problems or cause problems of its own.

Wright said that Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni said that his country is still trying to provide electricity for its residents, but pledged $5 million to the family planning effort.

"He almost seemed to be expressing exasperation that the wealthy countries have their latest hobby horse and the developing countries have to follow along, even as they are trying to develop their own countries," Wright said.

The South Korea representative noted that the country began family planning programs in the 1960s but "overdid it' and now faces an underpopulation problem.

The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute said that the International Planned Parenthood Federation organized the NGOs at the summit and excluded any groups critical of the initiative.

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Wright herself said abortion advocates at the event recognized her and had a security guard check her credentials on suspicion she had sneaked into the event.

Austin Ruse, Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute president criticized that attention.

"This event is highly controlled," he charged. "They want a message coming out of the conference of complete unanimity. The only way to get that is to keep others out."

The family planning summit could prompt further clashes between summit organizers, their sympathizers in governments and the Catholic Church, which recognizes birth control use as sinful.

Melinda Gates, a self-identified Catholic who helped organize the summit, has said she rejects Catholic teaching on birth control and is advocating birth control as a matter of "social justice."

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