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Contraception: Saving Lives... and the Planet

September 25, 2014

On Friday, September 26, the world is celebrating World Contraception Day. Okay, 'celebrating' may be too strong a word. 'Observing' may be more like it. And the number of people actually observing the day in some form is probably small. Okay, very small. To borrow a phrase from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the world "will little note, nor long remember" World Contraception Day 2014. That's too bad. For in truth, there's a whole lot to celebrate, and a whole lot more left to do if men and women everywhere are going to have access to the contraceptive method of their choice.

The obvious reason for celebrating modern contraceptives is that they allow us to have children by choice, rather than by chance. They minimize, in other words, the chances of an unintended or unwanted pregnancy. That mere fact itself is worth a celebratory cheer, but there is a lot more to get excited about.

Contraception is a life-saver.

Contraception saves lives
, particularly in developing nations where access to contraception can mean the difference between life and death for girls and women who do not have access to adequate medical care. This is particularly true for child brides who are not physically mature enough to give birth, but pregnancy is a significant health risk for women of any age who are unable to space their pregnancies more than 18 months apart.

In the United States, very few women die from pregnancy-related causes, but in some rural parts of Africa, women have a 1 in 30 lifetime chance of dying as a result of a pregnancy. Of the 800 women in the world who die every day from pregnancy-related causes, the vast majority are in the developing world.

There are an estimated 222 million women in the developing world who want to avoid getting pregnant, but who are not currently using a modern method of contraception. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that meeting this 'unmet need' for family planning, would save the lives of 79,000 women each year by allowing these women to delay motherhood, space births, and avoid unwanted pregnancies.

Increasing contraceptive use in the developing world would also reduce the number of infant deaths. Closely spaced pregnancies are associated with an increased risk of low birth weight, preterm birth, and other health risks for infants. Birth spacing also gives mothers more time to breastfeed, improving infant health and nutrition. Guttmacher estimates that expanding contraceptive use could prevent 1.1 million infant deaths every year.

One contraceptive method in particular, the condom, plays a crucial role worldwide in reducing the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The World Health Organization emphasizes that the "Consistent and correct use of condoms, male or female, is critical for prevention of HIV transmission to non-infected sexual partners."

In countries with rapidly growing population, increased contraceptive usage helps to relieve the pressure on overloaded health care delivery systems, freeing up resources for the treatment of malaria, tuberculosis, and other deadly diseases. In countries already struggling with hunger and malnutrition, increased contraceptive use can improve food security by lowering population growth rates. Current population projections indicate that Niger, which ranks very high on the Global Hunger Index, could nearly quadruple its population in the next 40 years. Without a reduction in fertility rates, it is hard to imagine how Niger could ever hope to adequately feed its population.

While contraception is saving lives, it is also saving the planet.

Contraception is helping to save the planet from the harm that humanity is doing to the climate, the oceans, and the survival of endangered species. Thanks to expanded use of contraception, fertility rates continue to fall, but world population, currently 7.2 billion, is still expected to reach 9.6 by mid-century and 11 billion by the end of the century. Scientists are warning that our consumption of material resources, driven by rising population and higher standards of living, is threating to breach "planetary boundaries," causing irreparable harm to the environment and threatening the well-being of future generations.

Humanity is already over-consuming water and other vital resources. The Global Footprint Network warns that by 2030 we will need two Earths to meet our demand for renewable resources. Lakes and rivers in many areas are shrinking and wells are going dry. Arable land is in short supply, topsoil is eroding, and deserts are expanding.

Our over-consumption of fossil fuels is altering the climate and the chemistry of the oceans. As emissions increase, temperatures and seas are gradually rising, while drought and flooding are intensifying. Dead zones are forming in the oceans, coral reefs are being destroyed, and the ocean 'harvest' is gradually declining from its historical peak.

And it's not just humans that are endangered. Scientists are warning that human activity is triggering a "sixth mass extinction. Many of the world's most beloved animal species-- including elephants, lions, tigers, rhinos, and polar bears--could face virtual extinction in the wild, long before this century ends.

There's more to be done.

Contraception is helping to save both lives and the planet, but there is so much more that needs to be done: About 40 percent of pregnancies worldwide are unintended, including about 50 percent of pregnancies here in the United States. We desperately need to improve contraceptive options for people around the world, particularly for adolescents and young adults. We need to expand the availability of IUDs and 'injectable' contraceptives that more effectively prevent unplanned pregnancies. We also need to eliminate the cultural and informational barriers that effectively prevent girls and women in developing countries from using contraceptives. Child marriage practices, in particular, should be abandoned, and we need to invest more resources in educating girls and providing women with better economic opportunities.

World Contraception Day is more than a celebration: It's a call to action.

This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on September 25, 2014 on The Huffington Post

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