In a recent report, the United Nations have declared that access to contraception is a universal human right. This is on the basis that restricting women’s access to contraception – whether legally, financially or culturally preventing her – is an infringement of women’s rights. This report has no legal ramifications for national laws, though it does urge governments and leaders to reform their policies regarding contraception, family planning and abortion.
This follows the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, in which 179 countries signed a Programme of Action, allowing couples and individuals to “decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the information and means to do so” – something the UN now hails as shifting the perception of governments and international organisations on family planning and population control.
While this seems like a natural progression, it’s a bold step that will be controversial among conservatives everywhere – but this report has endless potential to change things for the better for women across the globe.
Designating birth control and contraception as a basic human right means that it is held as a common standard and achievement for all individuals, governments and nations, and states that they must strive, via means of education and legislation, to promote the respects of the right and freedom of men and women to use or take contraceptive measures. The UN has included male and female sterilisation, oral hormonal pills, IUDs, male condoms, the implant, injected forms of birth control, female condoms, emergency contraception and vaginal barrier methods. Rights to contraception now join a list that includes the right to not be held as a slave, the right to seek asylum in any country, free of persecution, and the individual right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
This has great meaning for women living in countries of all levels of economic development. Statistics have shown that the average woman in the US only want 2 children, meaning that they would need to be using contraceptives for roughly 30 years of their lifespan. 1 in 2 pregnancies among American women are unwanted. Among women that are sexually active and are at risk of an unintentional pregnancy, only 89% use contraceptives (81% for teenagers), and there are 3.1 million unintended pregnancies per year as a result. These numbers alone suggest that there is a huge financial and cultural barrier to accessing contraceptives in the US.
For example, in 2006, 46% of women in need of publicly subsidised healthcare in order to receive contraceptive services were denied it. As for a cultural example, there is no need to look further than Sandra Fluke, an attorney and women’s rights activist who campaigned for insurance agencies to be required to cover the costs of birth control. She was attacked publicly by Rush Limbaugh – echoing the views of the far-right conservatives of the nation, who believed that only “sluts” want to be “paid to have sex” – which is apparently what accessible birth control is.
Women without a large income suffer even more – the issue of accessible contraception is also a battle of class. Only 10% of unintended births are living on double the poverty level income – suggesting that accidental pregnancy is an epidemic among impoverished women in the US, as a result of inaccessible and unaffordable contraceptive measures. While birth control is available in the US, it is not accessible – though this report may be the catalyst for the hugely important changes required to make birth control a right within the Western world, for all men and women, not just those capable of affording exorbitantly priced contraception.
In less economically developed countries, the issues are similar – women desire their own bodily determination, and the choice of when they want children, how they want children, and how many they desire. Readily accessed birth control not only economically benefits these countries and women, but culturally provides something that these women may have never seen before – the ability to determine their own futures, and the promise of gender equality.
In a study conducted by Johns Hopkins University, it was shown that if women in developing countries had access to methods of birth control, the global rate of maternal mortality would drop by almost a third. The reasoning for this is that contraception delays first pregnancies in very young women, prevents unsafe abortions, and controls the dangers of pregnancies too closely spaced together. It’s clear that this isn’t merely an issue of women having the power to determine their futures – it is also a means of preventing the deaths of up to 817,000 women per year. The countries with the highest maternal mortality rates are Chad, Somalia, Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic, and Burundi – all countries considered to be developing nations, and among the world’s poorest.
The benefits of easily accessible contraception are not only for the health of women – birth control and family planning has a huge impact on the economies of developing countries. In this report, the UN has predicted that if the Nigerian birth rate fell by one child per woman, that the economy of the country would grow by up to $30 million. Giving women in impoverished countries the choice to use contraception would reduce maternal and newborn health care costs by $11.3 billion per year. However, access to birth control doesn’t just affect the economy – the ramifications of denying women access to contraception led to poverty, exclusion, poor health, and predictably, high rates of gender inequality.
In general, women with access to contraception have longer, healthier lives – as do their children. A UN report found that if a further 120 million women had access to birth control, the rate of infants dying in their first year of life would drop by 3 million. Women everywhere – from the US to Nigeria – need access to birth control. It allows economies to pull themselves out of poverty, and women greater cultural gender equality. In countries with easily obtained birth control, women are generally healthier, more educated, and are more empowered within their households and communities. Additionally, while the report itself makes no allusions to the availability of abortions, it seems to be the next logical step to nurture women’s health, gender equality and individual and national economic strength in both Western and developing countries.
The UN has made a decision to positively change the lives of women around the globe. With access to affordable, safe and socially accepted contraception, women everywhere are being given power that they have never experienced before. They have the power to control their own bodies, and determine their futures – something many of these women will have never experienced before. And as we all know – empowerment of women is the first step to creating a world in which all genders are viewed equally.
Written by Jessica Bagnall