Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Family planning charities suggest helping poor women “control their fertility” will save as much CO2 as a trillion dollars of investment in low carbon technologies. But provision of family planning wrapped around a higher purpose has a long and ugly history.
Worried About Climate Change? Investing in Reproductive Health Must Be Part of the Solution
Monday, 21st May 2018
at 5:15 pm
Since the invention of the contraceptive pill in the 1950’s, access to modern contraception has driven some of the key demographic and social changes in history. It has delivered improved health outcomes for mothers and babies as women are able to wait longer between births or delay having their first child. It created demographic shifts, as populations have fewer dependents and a more productive labour force. It has empowered girls and women to stay in school longer, seek higher education and participate in the formal economy. And now recent research has determined that contraception also has a key role to play in addressing climate change.
Poverty reduction and strengthening economies
When women can exercise reproductive choice, they are more likely to participate in education and the workforce. In most developing countries, female participation in the formal economy has increased as fertility has fallen. Women’s participation in the economy promotes economic growth and economies that are strong are better able to absorb the disturbances of climate change and recover from climate-related events.
Women’s participation and leadership
Women’s participation and leadership is important to climate change preparedness, resilience and action. Enabling women to control their bodies and reproductive health can help create opportunities for women to participate, lead and contribute to the conversation.
As a climate change mitigation strategy, family planning programs are also more cost-effective than other conventional, energy-focused solutions. One study found that $220 billion spent on providing family planning to those with an unmet need would reduce 34 gigatons of global carbon emissions, compared to $1 trillion for a similar outcome if spent on low carbon technologies.
Regardless of your position on birth control and abortion, I think we can all feel a sense of unease when efforts to provide “family planning” are offered as part of a larger mission to reduce population, rather than placing the interests of the recipients of the medical aid first.
Provision of birth control to poor people has a long, ugly history. For example, consider this Guardian story about the Bangladesh government’s recent efforts to offer sterilisation services to inconvenient Rohingya refugees displaced by ongoing political turmoil in Burma.
Bangladesh to offer sterilisation to Rohingya in refugee camps
Family planning authorities have asked the government to launch vasectomies and tubectomies for women in Cox’s Bazar, where 1m refugees fight for space.
Bangladesh is planning to introduce voluntary sterilisation in its overcrowded Rohingya camps, where nearly a million refugees are fighting for space, after efforts to encourage birth control failed.
More than 600,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh since a military crackdown in neighbouring Myanmar in August triggered an exodus, straining resources in the impoverished country.
The latest arrivals have joined hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled in earlier waves from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where the stateless Muslim minority has endured decades of persecution.
Most live in desperate conditions with limited access to food, sanitation or health facilities and local officials fear a lack of family planning could stretch resources even further.
Many of the refugees told AFP they believed a large family would help them survive in the camps, where access to food and water remains a daily battle and children are often sent out to fetch and carry supplies.
Others had been told contraception was against the tenets of Islam.
Farhana Sultana, a family planning volunteer who works with Rohingya refugees in the camps, said many of the women she spoke to believed birth control was a sin.
“In Rakhine they did not go to family planning clinics, fearing the Myanmar authorities would give medicine that harms them or their children,” Sultana said.
You could reasonably argue that refugee women having 19 children each is unsustainable. But I doubt the first concern of the Bangladeshi authorities is the well-being of the Rohingya. I suspect the Bangladeshi authorities would be overjoyed if the Rohingya refugee problem just quietly disappeared.
Over zealous family planning doesn’t just occur in poor countries. The USA has experienced domestic scandals in the past related to forced sterilisation, and scandals with the practices of organisations like Planned Parenthood, including accusations of medical racism.
My point is I personally have no problem with women having access to the medical services they need to create a better life for themselves and their families. I understand some people likely have different opinions about reproductive issues, what is an is not acceptable, to myself.
But surely we can all agree that mixing family planning with another mission like reducing humanity’s global carbon footprint creates a horrifying risk that the welfare of patients will not be the top priority. There are many ugly historical examples to support this concern.