And there are tangible methods to obtain this brighter tomorrow. Increasing access to modern contraception, consistent healthcare, and health education help prevent high-risk pregnancies, unsafe abortion resulting from unwanted pregnancies, and closely spaced births. Lowering the health risks of over-frequent births will result in fewer maternal and infant deaths, greater opportunities to monitor ongoing conditions, and more time to breastfeed and care for children—itself constituting an improvement for infant health and child survival. In addition, increased access to prenatal, obstetric, and postpartum care will help reduce complications during and after pregnancy and increase women’s ability to maintain their own and their family’s health.
The decrease in death rates that would result from investment in reproductive care is too great to be ignored. While many women wishing to delay or avoid pregnancy use traditional methods of contraception, primarily periodic abstinence and withdrawal, the inefficacy of these methods is manifest in areas where such methods are customary. Providing access to modern contraceptives, according to the UN report on progress toward the MDGs, could reduce the number of unintended pregnancies from 75 million to 22 million, thereby decreasing annual maternal deaths by 27 percent.
The impact of increased modern contraceptive use in areas that previously relied on traditional methods has already been substantial. According to a 2010 report by the Guttmacher Institute in conjunction with the International Planned Parenthood Federation, current levels of use avert 188 million unintended pregnancies, resulting in 112 million fewer abortions, 1.2 million fewer newborn deaths, and 230,000 fewer maternal deaths. If demand for modern methods were fully met, the report continues, a further 53 million unintended pregnancies would be prevented annually—a decrease of 74 percent in Asia, 71 percent in Arab countries, and 77 percent in Africa—leading to 22 million fewer unplanned births, 25 million fewer induced abortions, and 7 million fewer miscarriages. The resulting decrease in child and maternal mortality—an estimated 150,000 women’s lives saved and 640,000 newborn deaths prevented—shows the extent to which access to modern contraceptive methods and family planning will contribute to the fulfillment of both the fourth and fifth Millennium Development Goals.
Along with this abatement in mortality rates, immediate social benefits can be expected to accompany the long-term improvement in women’s health. Lower rates of unintended pregnancies, especially among adolescents, would enable women to achieve higher levels of education and employment, to choose their family size, and to provide better care for their children. This would not only improve women’s status and gender equality, but would also contribute to family savings, poverty reduction, and economic gains. Having fewer children, or at least being able to choose how many children to have, can enable a better standard of living for individual families and potentially on a global scale. According to Janna Oberdorf, Communications Manager at the women’s rights organization Women Deliver, supporting women’s health and livelihood can engender positive social and economic impact worldwide. “Women are important not only socially as the heads of households, but they are also an economic force,” she says, adding that as women operate most small businesses and farms and contribute much of their income to their family’s health, they drive economic development. She adds that women’s unpaid work is equivalent to about one-third of world GDP. “When we let women die in childbirth, the world loses US$15 billion in productivity every year,” she says. “This is too costly an effect on national economic growth. When you take that stance, funders wake up and listen a bit more.”