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Melinda Gates: Saving thousands of women's lives through contraception

By JoelL Connelly, Seattle Post Intelligencer

937 days ago   Article ID# 1539624
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Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON (Seattle Post Intelligencer) - Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a Catholic, has delivered a powerful case for universal access to contraception for women around the world who need and want it.

She described birth control as an idea that, if made policy in both developed and developing countries, could save hundreds of thousands of women's and children's lives each year.

Gates decried myths about contraception talking to the TEDxChange conference in Berlin, in a speech that "stressed her Catholic identity and values," reported Michael C. Fox, publisher of the National Catholic Reporter.

"Some people think contraceptives are code for abortion, which they're not," Gates said. "Some people are uncomfortable because contraceptives have to do with sex. Some people worry that the real goal is to control populations.

"All these side issues have attached themselves to the core idea that men and women should be able to decide when to have a child. As a result, birth control has almost disappeared from the global health agenda."

Fighting such diseases as diarrhea and pneumonia is vital, Gates said, as well as helping farmers on small plots of land grow food.

"But one of the simplest and most transformational things we can do is give everybody access to the birth control methods that almost all Germans -- and all Americans -- use at some point in their lives," Gates argued.

"We can insist that all families have the opportunity to learn about contraceptives, and have access to the full variety of methods so they can decide which one is right for them. This is the clear goal: universal access to the birth control that women want. To achieve that goal, rich and poor governments alike must make birth control a priority."

Gates noted that every year 100,000 women who didn't wish to conceive die during childbirth, with 600,000 women who did not want to become pregnant giving birth to infants who die in the first month of life.

Pope Paul VI rejected contraception, against the counsel of his own advisory panel, in the 1966 encyclical Humanae Vitae. Pope John Paul II reiterated the teaching in his encyclicals. U.S. Catholic bishops are attacking the Obama administration for including contraception in health care coverage.

But polls show widespread rejection of the bishops' position among Catholic laypersons, and a benchmark study by the Guttmacher Institute found that 98 percent of American Catholic women who are are sexually active used contraception.

Melinda Gates noted being brought up a Catholic and being educated at church schools through high school, even that her mother's great-uncle was a Jesuit priest.

As to artificial contraception, she said, "In the tradition of the great Catholic scholars, the nuns also taught us to question received teachings. One of the teachings most of my classmates and I questioned was the one saying that birth control is a sin."

Other teachings, on public service and the Social Gospel, Gates believed and has acted upon, saying: "In the work at our foundation, I believe I am applying the lessons I learned in school."

The areas where contraception is most lacking, said Gates, are in sub-Saharan Africa -- just 10 percent of Nigeria's population uses modern borth control -- and poor regions in South Asia. Fewer than 30 percent of women in India's largest state have access to and use contraceptions.

The distribution of contraceptives is in no way linked to abortion or population control, as some critics have charged, Gates argued. "We are talking about giving women the power to save their own lives and their children's lives -- and to give families the best possible future," she added.

The Seattle-based Gates Foundation, its current assets topping $36 billion, has spent money on programs ranging from the education of native children in Alaska's Prince William Sound to the eradication of disease in Southern Africa.

Listening to women in the developing world has strengthened her views, Melinda Gates argued.

"The thing that strikes me most when I travel around on behalf of our foundation is that all women want the same thing," she said. "Last year, I met with a mother's group in a slum outside Nairobi. The women were taking turns explaining why they use birth control. Finally, a woman named Mary Ann summed up the whole conversation in a phrase I'll never forget.

"She said, quote, 'I want to bring every good thing to one child before I have another.' That's universal. We all want to bring every good thing to our children. What is not universal is our ability to provide every good thing to our children."

Bill and Melinda Gates have three children.

Copyright 2014 Seattle Post Intelligencer   (Copyright Terms)
Updated 937 days ago   Article ID# 1539624

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