Melinda GatesContraception: It saves lives and it’s not slutty. Any questions? (Photo: Gates Foundation)

Melinda Gates will celebrate World Population Day by avoiding saying the word “population,” and at the same time doing more to address population-related challenges than anyone else on the planet.

She has adopted family planning as her signature issue and is leading an effort by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to make contraceptives widely available to women in developing countries. On July 11, World Population Day, she’ll be headlining the London Summit on Family Planning, cosponsored by her foundation and the U.K. government. The aim of the summit is to raise $4 billion to provide family-planning services over the next eight years to 120 million women. About twice that many women now lack access, which Gates says is “a crime.”

Gates stresses the health benefits of the campaign and tries to defuse controversy by sidestepping the issue of abortion and rejecting the old-school notion of “population control,” which evokes images of rich white men telling poor women of color how many kids to have. Gates addressed this in an interview on CNN:

Sanjay Gupta: Is this population control?

Melinda Gates: No. And I think that’s where we’ve gotten ourselves … in trouble on this issue. Deciding about a family is a decision that needs to be made inside of a family. The population is coming down in countries where there’s widespread access to contraceptives, but you’ve got to start at the bottom up. To hear a poor woman say to me, “I can’t find the means to feed this child, and if I have seven children, there’s no way I can feed and keep alive seven children,” I think somebody needs to give voice to that and I think it’s important that I do that.

A study published Tuesday in The Lancet, financed by the Gates Foundation, found that fulfilling unmet demand for contraception from women in poor countries could cut global maternal mortality by almost a third.

The Guardian has more on the health benefits:

“if we are successful, it would mean 100 million fewer unintended pregnancies, 200,000 lives saved, 50 million abortions averted,” [said Andrew Mitchell, the U.K. minister for international development]. …

There is a strong consensus to suggest that with access to voluntary family planning, poverty declines, education rates rise, the health of women and children improves and the numbers of women who die in childbirth and children who die under the age of five falls.

Last week, Gates took this message to The Colbert Report:

Stephen Colbert: You know from the culture wars in the United States, if you’re in favor of contraception, you are automatically a slut. Aren’t you afraid that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will be thought of as a slut factory? It is controversial.

Melinda Gates: You know, we’ve made it controversial in the United States and it doesn’t need to be. In fact, 90 percent of Americans say they find contraceptives morally acceptable. But because we’ve made it controversial, it’s come off the global health agenda. And so it means 200 million women that say they want access to contraceptives — things that we use here in the United States — they don’t have them. And then guess what: women die if they can’t space their births, if they have children too close together, or they’re too young when they have a child. That shouldn’t happen in this day and age.

There you have it. Contraception: not slutty. Has anyone told Rush Limbaugh and Foster Friess?

UPDATE: Here’s Gates making the case for family planning in a cute animated video: