By Rebecca Oas, Ph.D.
NEW YORK, October 4 (C-FAM) “How many women is the UN Population Fund helping with infertility?”
It was not a question Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin expected in a televised debate on global population growth. The head of UNFPA muttered, “quite a number.” His fellow panelist was not satisfied. “Would I be right in saying it’s zero?” pressed Professor Matthew Connelly.
Connelly’s question illustrates the uneasy fit between the global feminist movement and the population control movement, which have found common ground in promoting contraception. To feminists, family planning (that is, avoiding children) is a means for women to achieve their aspirations; for environmentalists it is a way to ensure fewer people.
As long as women desire smaller families, the two movements’ interests coincide. But what about women who want children? This question increasingly centers on the African continent. Global survey data show that African women want more children than women elsewhere in the world – over five per woman in sub-Saharan Africa. Such a cultural acceptance of children can exacerbate the sorrow of women suffering from Africa’s emerging infertility problem, which is often the result of treatable infections. This issue remains largely neglected as a development priority.
Africa lags behind the rest of the world in poverty, maternal and child health, and overall infrastructure. Osotimehin describes it as the “ultimate testing ground” for development initiatives.
Nearly twenty years ago, the UN held a world conference in Cairo that set a global development agenda. Now that agenda is approaching a critical anniversary and occasion for review. This week, Africa will host the last in a series of regional conferences to discuss development priorities beyond 2014.
Feminist groups targeted each of these regional conferences to achieve what they failed at Cairo: the establishment of an international right to abortion. One feminist organization described its priorities as “access to safe and legal abortion, modern contraception, and comprehensive sexuality education.”
Government officials complained the Latin America and Asia Pacific conferences had been “hijacked” to promote abortion and sexual rights.
The final regional meeting is in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Last week a youth conference held in the same city released a list of “African youth priorities.” The opening ceremony featured a speaker from Planned Parenthood urging participants to place strong emphasis on sexual and reproductive health services.
The youth document requested governments remove legal restrictions on abortion and ensure “safe and comprehensive” access to abortion.
One of the biggest reasons given for pushing abortion and family planning in Africa is the high rate of maternal and child deaths. While feminist and population groups both prescribe abortion and contraceptives as a primary solution, fewer babies will not make childbirth itself safer for mothers or children. Without improved health care infrastructure and access to adequate transportation – which are credited with greatly improving maternal health outcomes in other regions such as Latin America – women and children will continue to suffer and die in childbirth.
The Gates Foundation has also set its sights on Africa. In November, the Ethiopian capital will host a follow-up to the London Family Planning Summit where world leaders pledged billions of dollars to ensure that women can have the families they want – as long as that means fewer children.
Rebecca Oas is the Associate Director of Research for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM). Her article first appeared in the Friday Fax, an internet report published weekly by C-FAM, a New York and Washington DC-based research institute (http://www.c-fam.org/).