A lot has changed in a century. One hundred years ago, pioneering birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger was fighting to change women’s lives and save mothers from suffering. She demanded that every woman had the right to be ‘the absolute mistress of her own body’ and this meant developing a reliable contraceptive pill.
Sanger’s vision and influence helped inspire one of the great public health advances of modern times – voluntary family planning. Birth control has not only improved women’s physical well-being but has dramatically changed their position in society.
Before the advent of the contraceptive pill, women had been shackled to a largely immutable cycle of marriage, pregnancy and subsequent domesticity. Self-determined family planning has empowered women to make informed decisions about whether and when to have children, to take advantage of educational and economic opportunities, and to better shape their futures.
Building better, healthier lives
The ability to choose when to give birth has a direct impact on a woman’s health and well-being:
- It lessens the need for unsafe abortions.
- It reduces the rate of unintended pregnancies in young women who are at increased risk of health problems and death from early childbearing.
- In the least-developed countries where access to healthcare remains poor, family planning can prevent closely spaced and ill-timed pregnancies and births, which contribute to some of the world’s highest infant mortality rates.
Family planning is also an important step toward breaking the cycle of poverty in low income economies – not just for women and their families but also for society as a whole. If women can decide the timing of a pregnancy, they have greater opportunities to train for professional qualifications, to generate their own income and to increasingly participate in public life. Having smaller families also allows parents to invest more in each child. Children with fewer siblings tend to stay in school longer than those with many siblings.
It is why for more than half a century, the United Nations has considered access to safe, voluntary family planning a fundamental human right.
And yet in many parts of the world this is not the case.
Choice for everyone
Today, there are around 214 million women of reproductive age in developing countries who want reliable contraception but have no access to it. This inequity is fueled by a growing population, a shortage of family planning services and traditional cultural attitudes.
The Guttmacher Institute estimates that women with an unmet need for modern contraception account for 84% of all unintended pregnancies in developing regions. It predicts that if all these women had access to modern contraceptives there would be approximately a three-quarters decline in unintended pregnancies (from 89 million to 22 million per year) and unplanned births (from 30 million to seven million per year). This would in turn prevent 76,000 maternal deaths every year.
So how do we go about achieving this?
International initiatives such as the Reproductive Heath Supplies Coalition (RHSC), focus on three crucial pillars to promoting family planning around the world: education, access and support.
As a member of RHSC and in joint projects with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Bayer has supported family planning programs in 130 countries for more than 50 years, providing access to modern contraceptives for women worldwide.
But while access, availability and affordability are crucial, providing the knowledge of the possibilities and benefits of active family planning is vital for a sustained long-term change. Bayer is working with White Ribbon Alliance to offer sexual health education and promotes better self-care to young women around the world.
At the start of the 20th century, Margaret Sanger fought to show how contraception could change women’s lives for the better, today we must continue to fight to make sure women all over the world get the same chance.