(U.K.), July 22, 2012
My Agony Being Brought Up To Believe Contraceptives
upbringing has always been a driving force behind my work at the
But nobody felt the need to bring it up until three months ago,
when I started talking about the hundreds of millions of women
in poor countries who want and need but don't have access to contraceptives.
Now, the question
I get more than any other is: 'Given the Church's teaching, was
it hard for you to advocate birth control?'
is: 'Yes.' It was very hard for me to take a stand on this issue.
I spent years wrestling with my feelings. Many people I love and
respect friends, former teachers, members of my church believe
contraceptives are a sin. I didn't want to upset them.
And the Church
itself means a lot to me. I attended Catholic schools. My great-aunt,
the woman who taught me to read when I was a little girl, was
a nun. My Catholic values have so much to do with the kind of
person and mother I am, and I was reluctant to stir up controversy.
But when Bill
and I got married, his mother wrote us a letter that included
a quotation from the Book of Luke: 'For unto whomsoever much is
given, of him shall be much required.'
I have been
given the privilege to travel extensively in developing countries,
to learn what life is like for women and girls.
I have seen
teenage mothers with broken bodies because they had one baby after
another (or, as one woman said to me, 'a baby on the back and
another inside'). I have heard women describe their desperate
struggle to get birth control.
ones spend their meagre savings on counterfeit contraceptives
sold by unscrupulous vendors. The lucky ones walk an entire day
to get to a health clinic that may or may not have contraceptives
I felt compelled
to do something about the things I've learned. I recently travelled
to London to co-host the historic Family Planning Summit with
the British Government. I wanted to talk about our goal of giving
120 million women access to contraceptives by 2020, but I kept
being asked about my religion instead. I was disappointed they
didn't want to talk about how access to contraceptives will transform
women's lives. You should be proud of your country's leadership
in sponsoring this lifesaving summit.
who has shown courage in maintaining the UK's foreign aid budget
in tough economic times, is an inspiring champion for women and
girls. The pounds Britain invests in family planning aid will
make it possible for parents in developing countries to raise
healthy and productive families.
doctrine on contraceptives is very clear, so I understand why
people ask me how I reconcile my faith and my conscience.
But I am inspired
by the voluminous Catholic literature on God's commitment to the
poor. I received my Catholic education at Ursuline Academy, where
we were taught to live out our motto, serviam 'I will serve'.
I would not be so passionate about saving women's lives if I hadn't
been steeped in teachings about social justice.
This is the
key point for me. Access to contraceptives is a social justice
issue. Birth control gave me the power to lead the life I wanted.
I attended college, built a fulfilling career, and had the number
of children I wanted, when I wanted.
all of us reading this newspaper had the opportunity to use contraceptives
to determine our future. The vast majority of us did so without
a second thought. There is no reason why poor women wouldn't want
the same level of self-determination that we exercise as a matter
of course. In fact, they do want it.
ago, I visited Niger, a large, arid country in West Africa where
the average woman gives birth to more than seven children. The
United Nations ranks 187 countries in what it calls the Human
Development Index. Last year, Niger came in second to last.
In the village
of Talle, on the edge of the Sahel Desert, I met a woman named
Sadi Seyni. She was breast-feeding her youngest child when I wandered
by and she invited me into her one-room, mud-brick home.
Hausa, and through a translator she told me she has six children,
five girls and a boy. She didn't know about contraceptives until
after her third child, and now she walks ten miles to get contraceptive
injections every three months. She wants more children eventually
but plans to wait until her youngest is four years old before
she gets pregnant again.
When I asked
her why, she said it's important to 'give yourself and your children
a break'. The science backs Sadi up. If every mother spaced her
children at least two years apart, it would save the lives of
two million children every year.
want my children's lives to be different from mine,' Sadi told
me. 'I am suffering. I didn't have a chance to go to school. I
want my children to have the means to take care of themselves.'
She is worried
her oldest daughter won't be able to keep attending school because
the walk isn't safe.
for education is the most consistent theme in my conversations
with women. Every single mother I've talked to wants her children
to go to school, because it's the clearest path to a better life.
But this dream also depends on access to contraceptives.
In very large
families, older children typically stay home to help care for
the youngest, or go to work to supplement their parents' income.
Many families simply don't have enough money to pay school fees
for all of their children. And many young girls end their schooling
early because they get pregnant.
just some of the reasons why I was so moved by the world's resolve
to address these challenges at the Family Planning Summit. The
summit put a women's issue at the centre of the global-health
hundreds of partners gathered in London donor governments, development
agencies, private-sector companies and governments and civil-society
organisations from developing countries combining their considerable
resources to realise a single vision of transformation for women
and girls, their families, their communities and their nations.
This is a
milestone and it will change the course of development. Now, I
am focused on keeping the momentum going for the next eight years
and beyond, when the work we promised to do together must actually
I am optimistic
because the Gates Foundation and the UK have many partners. Leaders
from dozens of developing countries attended the summit and made
pledges to expand access to women in their countries. Those commitments
are a promise that this work will be a priority in poor countries
for years to come.
on the months I have spent thinking about family planning day
and night, one irony stands out. Despite the media's concern with
my faith, this experience has helped me think more seriously about
it. I have been contacted by thousands of Catholic women who tell
me they are inspired by what I'm doing. That has been a humbling
I will always
find comfort and wisdom in the values of my Catholic upbringing
and I will remain deeply committed to giving women access to the
lifesaving contraceptives they want.
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