American women, like those in other industrialized countries, take our family planning for granted. But we shouldn't. It's only been 40 years since family planning was recognized as an international human right.
It was May 13, 1968, that the International Conference on Human Rights, held in Tehran, declared: "Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children."
It is an understatement to say that for women worldwide, this was a revolutionary declaration. For millenniums, women were valued almost exclusively as mothers -- while family planning was illegal. But women have sought means of limiting their mothering at least since Cleopatra tried using gold pellets. Women have always known that family planning gives them options -- time to mature, to get an education or hold a job, or to recover from previous pregnancies.
Women also know that motherhood, though beautiful, is dangerous. More than 40 percent of all pregnancies suffer complications, and in 15 percent of pregnancies the complications are life-threatening. Infection, hemorrhage, high blood pressure (eclampsia), and obstructed labor, were routine killers of women worldwide, rich and poor alike, until the western medical advances of the 20th century. The Taj Mahal is a bereaved emperor's monument to the wife who died at the age of 39 giving birth to his 14th child. In 1900, death in childbirth was still common, but women around the world bore an average of six children each.
The arrival of the intra-uterine device and the birth control pill in 1960 began the era of safe, affordable and effective contraceptives, and pressure from educated women gradually led to its legalization around the world.
In the past 40 years, modern contraceptive use has risen from 10 percent of married couples worldwide to about 65 percent today. Women are bearing half as many children as their mothers did. The global average is now three each.
But these averages disguise great disparities. In the developing world, some 200 million women have no access to safe and effective contraceptives. Fully half of the earth's 190 million annual pregnancies are unintended, and a third of them end in abortions. Unsafe abortions are among the top pregnancy-related causes that kill one woman every minute -- more than 536,000 deaths a year -- nearly all in poor areas. Universal access to family planning could avert at least a third of these deaths. It could also liberate the time, energy and creativity of millions of women to become economically and socially productive in societies struggling for economic development.
However, family planning is no longer a priority for international aid programs. Funding from donor countries and agencies has declined steadily since 1995, even though half of all people on Earth are under 25, and every year, millions more of them become sexually active. Their needs and rising AIDS-prevention efforts are expected to increase contraceptive demand by 40 percent in the next 15 years. If that demand is not met, international health and poverty reduction goals will not be met either.
It's a shame the U.S. government doesn't set more of a priority on supporting international family planning because the majority of voters would support such efforts. The Women Donors Network, together with Communications Consortium Media Center, conducted research among voters nationwide, surveying attitudes on important life decisions. We found that 91 percent of voters agreed that couples should have access to birth control. Voters believe, by 83 percent, that we should respect people's ability to make their own life decisions, including when to give birth -- and not impose our values and views on them.
There was also very strong support for the idea that family planning is a requirement for women's human rights. An overwhelming majority -- 78 percent -- told researchers that they agreed with this statement: "For women to achieve equality, they must have access to family planning services, including birth control and contraception."
The U.S. should pledge with renewed determination to make sure every woman can plan when and how often to become a mother. It has officially been a human right for 40 years, but in too many places, it's not yet a reality.
Donna P. Hall is the CEO of the Women Donors Network, based in Menlo Park, Calif. This column was provided via the American Forum, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization.
© 2008 Capital Newspapers