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CFR Report Argues U.S. Prioritization of Family Planning Can Significantly Reduce Maternal and Child Deaths and Abortions in Developing World

April 28, 2011
Council on Foreign Relations

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“Women today are recognized as critical to reducing poverty, boosting economic growth and agricultural productivity, promoting environmental sustainability, and raising healthy and well-educated children—steps that are imperative to confronting a range of pressing foreign policy challenges around the globe,” argues a new Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report. The publication, Family Planning and U.S. Foreign Policy: Ensuring U.S. Leadership for Healthy Families and Communities and Prosperous, Stable Societies, calls for increased investments in family planning programs, which “give women the tools to make critical decisions about the size of their families and the spacing of their pregnancies, better enabling them to be linchpins of positive change in their communities.”

According to the report, an estimated 215 million women globally still experience an unmet need for family planning. The authors, CFR scholars Isobel Coleman and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, write that meeting that need “would significantly reduce the number of maternal and child deaths and abortions, resulting in healthier and more secure families throughout the developing world.”

They maintain that “complications from induced abortions account for approximately 13 percent of maternal deaths... [W]ith increased access to family planning, the number of induced abortions in the developing world would decline by 70 percent.” The authors also argue that reducing newborn and childhood mortality is another reason to prioritize family planning. “Forty percent of all child deaths under the age of five are newborn deaths. When a mother dies, her surviving newborn's risk of death increases to 70 percent.”

The authors also point to potential cost savings: “Research has shown that fulfilling today's unmet need for modern family planning would cost an incremental $3.6 billion. However, this investment would decrease the cost of providing maternal and newborn health services by $5.1 billion, because roughly 50 million fewer women would become pregnant unintentionally. The result would be a net total savings of $1.5 billion. Reducing the number of abortions would also result in a $140 million savings in health-care services.”

Additionally, the report contends that if global fertility rates remain at current levels, rather than declining as predicted by the United Nations, it could “jeopardize international poverty reduction measures, exacerbate security threats already present, and threaten the sustainable use of the world's natural resources.” Family planning can have a huge influence on fertility rates: “Use of modern family planning... in the developing world increased from less than 10 percent in 1965 to 53 percent in 2005.... [This] led to a global decline in the average number of children being born to each woman from more than six to just over three children.”

While U.S. funding for family planning has traditionally been strong, it “peaked in 1995 and declined significantly after that. Although in nominal terms funding has recovered in recent years, it still remains 40 percent below peak funding levels when adjusted for inflation.... Today in Washington, there is serious talk about drastically cutting support for international family planning, even though it is one of the most cost-effective foreign assistance programs the United States funds.”

Coleman and Lemmon argue that “strengthened U.S. leadership can continue to empower strong and secure families around the globe and simultaneously advance U.S. foreign policy aims” and offer the following recommendations:

-        Prioritize family planning in U.S. foreign policy.

-        Increase U.S. family planning funding.

-        Increase access to family planning.

-        Encourage political support for women's health within countries receiving aid.

-        Expand resources into countries with highest unmet need.

The report, sponsored by CFR's Women and Foreign Policy program, is the result of a nine month bipartisan study group of experts from academia, government, military, business, and non-profit communities. It is available at www.cfr.org/family_planning_report.

The following CFR publications, part of the Family Planning and U.S. Foreign Policy Project (www.cfr.org/family_planning_project), provide more background on the issues discussed in the report:

-        Family Planning and Reproductive Health, by Koki Agarwal, Jhpiego, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University (www.cfr.org/reproductive_health_report)

-        Population and Environment Connections, by Geoffrey D. Dabelko, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (www.cfr.org/population_environment_report)

-        Family Planning as a Strategic Focus of U.S. Foreign Policy, by Elizabeth Leahy Madsen, Population Action International (www.cfr.org/family_planning_foreign_policy_report)

Read more from Isobel Coleman in her new blog, "Democracy in Development," and in this Expert Brief on family planning and U.S. foreign policy, published today.

 

The Women and Foreign Policy program (www.cfr.org/women/) is a major component of CFR's Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy initiative (www.cfr.org/thinktank/csmd/). The objective of the program is to bring the status of women firmly into the mainstream foreign policy debate.

Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she directs the Women and Foreign Policy program and the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy initiative. She is the author of numerous publications, including her critically acclaimed book Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East. Prior to joining CFR, Coleman was chief executive officer of a health-care services company and a partner with McKinsey & Co. in New York. A Marshall scholar, she holds a BA in public policy and East Asian studies from Princeton University and MPhil and DPhil degrees in international relations from Oxford University.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the deputy director of CFR's Women and Foreign Policy program. Prior to joining CFR, Lemmon covered public policy and emerging markets for the global investment firm PIMCO, after working for nearly a decade as a journalist with the ABC News political unit and This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Gayle has reported on entrepreneurs in conflict and postconflict regions for the Financial Times, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Daily Beast, and Christian Science Monitor, along with Ms. magazine, Bloomberg, Politico, and the Huffington Post. She is also the author of the best-selling book The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. Lemmon earned a BA in journalism summa cum laude from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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