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Robinson: More funds for family planning

Photo Credit: Donna Grethen Illustration/

Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland (1990-1997) and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997-2002, is chairwoman of the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health.

The world's leaders are in New York at the United Nations this week, and global reproductive rights activists are holding their feet to the fire. We're asking them to deliver on promises made 17 years ago at the UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, when they agreed to make contraceptive services available for women all over the world by 2015.

At the end of next month, world population will officially hit 7 billion, and more than 200 million women in the poorest nations of Africa and Asia wait with little hope for the family planning services they would gladly use to delay or space their children, if modern contraceptives were available.

I fought my first political battle 40 years ago as a member of the Irish Senate, pushing for legislation to legalize family planning. It was the right thing to do then, and it remains the right thing to do.

In 1960s Ireland, not even married women could use the contraceptive pill, unless they had cycle regulation problems -- and there were an awful lot of married women telling their doctors they had cycle regulation problems. At the time, it was not against the law to use a condom, but it was against the law to buy or sell them.

In my innocence, I thought it would be easy to draft a law legalizing contraception. I didn't fully anticipate the whole cultural context in Catholic Ireland in 1969-1970. I was denounced from pulpits, and I felt very isolated. It was the one time in my career that I really wondered, "Can I go on?" I had to steady myself, but the answer was yes. Contraception was legalized for married women by the Supreme Court in 1974. It was important then; it's more important now.

Every year, more than 358,000 women die in the developing regions of the world from pregnancy-related causes. The failure to support the health needs of developing countries is now a global problem, one with long-term implications for the economic, environmental and political health of the entire world.

Enough is enough. Women who have access to family planning have fewer children, and the ones they do have are healthier and better educated. Long-term, scientists have reported, investments in reproductive health are reflected in lower carbon emissions and a reduced likelihood of civil unrest, as smaller families help lift communities out of poverty and reduce pressure on food security.

Despite such benefits, funding for reproductive health is at risk. In some countries, including the United States, reproductive health has become a hot-button political issue domestically, and it is often incorrectly associated with support for abortion. Other obstacles in the countries themselves include a failure of leaders to make the issue a priority and, among women, a lack of awareness and fear of social disapproval from family and community.

The UN estimates that an additional $3.6 billion to extend family planning in the poorest nations would save lives -- and cut the costs associated with maternal and infant death by $5.1 billion. Although traditionally family planning services have been funded by donor countries, now the largest increases in money for these services come from developing nations, which have learned that this investment is cost-effective and can provide an immediate dividend in economic development and peace and stability.

Current and former presidents, vice presidents and prime ministers of Brazil, Finland, Latvia, Liberia, Malawi, New Zealand and Norway have formed a group of unlikely rebels known as the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, to call attention to the importance of family planning. My struggle as a 25-year-old legislator in Dublin is now taking place on a global stage. Young Irish women can't imagine a time when they would have had to lie to their doctors to obtain services they view as a right. Neither can women in the United States.

We are fighting for the rights of millions of women who have no doctors to lie to and no tools with which to prevent unwanted pregnancies -- as many as 75 million of them every year. In those countries, it's a matter of life and death. As we look down the road to sharing the world with 10 billion people -- projected to happen in 2100 -- it may someday be a matter of life and death for all of us.


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