There are perhaps few things that liberals and conservatives can agree on these days. One of them is that strong families are essential to the well-being of society and the health of a nation. A related area of agreement is that investments aimed at strengthening families provide a big pay-off in both the short and long terms.
One of the best ways to strengthen families—both in the United States and globally—is to guarantee access to family planning. Women are healthier when they can space the births of their children, and their babies are healthier too. Poverty rates go down and education rates go up.
Here’s more good news: According to a 2010 study by the United Nations Population Fund, the number of women who die annually in pregnancy and childbirth has dropped by almost half over the past two decades—from 543,000 deaths to 287,000 deaths a year. But the study also shows that much more still needs to be done. A woman dies of pregnancy-related complications every two minutes; 99 percent of these deaths occur in developing countries and most could have been prevented. The four most common causes of maternal death are infection, high blood pressure while pregnant, severe bleeding after giving birth, and unsafe abortions.
Faith-based initiatives are among the many organizations that provide family planning and reproductive health services in developing countries. Christian Connections for International Health is one example—a network of more than 200 faith-based organizations that work on international family-planning issues, including contraceptives. Faith-based groups—including members of Christian Connections for International Health and leaders from Muslim organizations such as Muhammadiyah—attended a family-planning summit in London this past summer that was organized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to explore ways of strengthening faith-based efforts in family-planning service delivery and advocacy.
In Kenya, Christian community health workers are collaborating with faith-based hospitals to teach family-planning methods, including the use of condoms and birth-control pills, which they provide as a part of their daily work. According to Lauren VanEnk at the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University, these hospitals “fully recognize the integral role that family planning plays in improving maternal and child health as well as relieving the economic burden many families experience when they are unable to plan their families.”
With a steady local presence and providers who are known and trusted, faith-based groups are able to provide essential services in communities around the world. The efforts of these groups are grounded in spiritual values. The belief that human rights and dignity are God given, the importance of enriching and nurturing human life, the need to reduce suffering, the right to physical and mental health—these are values shared by many different faith traditions, and they provide a solid basis for collaboration.
Here in the United States, the United Methodist church has long been a leader in the fight for maternal and child health. At its general conference last year, the church passed a resolution to support global initiatives on maternal health and to raise awareness about the issue in the pews. The Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative aims to educate and mobilize United Methodists on the importance of international family planning and maternal health. The initiative has conducted regional trainings across the nation and created 75 ambassadors in 18 states to work within their congregations and communities for greater political and financial support for international family planning and maternal health.
Last fall the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good released a public statement in support of family planning on religious grounds. “A Call to Christian Common Ground on Family Planning, and Maternal, and Children’s Health” says that family planning should be accessible to women “in every part of the world.” The statement points out that family planning saves women’s lives, strengthens families, reduces abortion, and promotes human flourishing.
In addition, the Religious Institute released a public letter last fall supporting family planning as a moral imperative. Thirty-eight leaders from diverse faith traditions crafted and signed the letter. “All persons should be free to make personal decisions about their families and reproductive lives that are informed by their culture, faith tradition, religious beliefs, conscience, and community,” said Rev. Debra W. Haffner, president of the Religious Institute. Also, the Institute sponsors the Rachael Sabbath Initiative, a project that aims to reduce maternal mortality and promote universal access to reproductive health services.
Through the efforts of faith groups such as these and their collaboration with global health organizations, we can work to ensure that maternal mortality rates will continue to drop and that more women across the globe will experience pregnancy and childbirth as healthy and joyful, which is their God-given right.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.