As our fearless leaders duke it out over contraception, blustering on as though women’s needs were mere political ping-pong, the time is ripe for environmentalists to embrace new alliances centered on empowering women. To begin, consider four little-discussed facts:
1. Without contraception, the average woman would become pregnant roughly 12 to 15 times in her life.
2. Contraception has proven to save lives and improve health on such a scale that it ranks alongside seat belts and antibiotics as one of the greatest public-health achievements of the 20th century.
3. An estimated 215 million women around the world wish to avoid pregnancy but are not using modern contraception.
4. More than 7 billion humans live on earth, and the largest generation ever is now coming of age.
These are the cold, hard facts of life that will shape the future of the world. If we act quickly to meet the needs of all women who wish to decide for themselves the number and spacing of their children, world population will peak at about 8 billion; if we fail, our numbers will soar to 12 billion or more, compounding the challenges of global warming, water shortages, overfishing, loss of biological diversity, you name it.
So yes, by all means, let’s hold hearings on contraception in every forum.
Here in the U.S., President Obama struck a deal that will assure American women access to contraception, free of charge, no matter where they work. In a country where nearly half of all pregnancies are unintended, this is good news for women. And given that Americans consume far more than our fair share of global resources, it’s also good news for the planet. But let’s not rest on our laurels just because this provision survived a squeaker of a vote in the Senate last week.
We need to make sure that contraception is readily available to women in every country. In places like sub-Saharan Africa, a staggering number of women suffer and die of pregnancy-related causes. Contraception can spell the difference between life and death, and can enable a woman to complete her education and lift her family out of poverty. That is the lens through which we must view this epic struggle over who controls the means of reproduction.
Come together, right now
Recent nationwide opinion research indicates that environmentalists could be a strong force in fighting to empower women and improve contraceptive access. A survey of environmental activists and donors — commissioned last fall by Americans for UNFPA and conducted by Belden Russonello Strategists (BRS) — asked whether respondents would prefer a campaign that focused on consumption and clean energy or one that focused on consumption, clean energy, and population growth. Eighty percent preferred to have population in the mix. Environmentalists see the connections between these issues and the importance of working on several fronts to protect scarce resources for future generations, even while they recognize that consumption is a big part of the picture too.
If women’s groups and environmentalists work together, we can muster the political will to meet the need for family planning, which will generate multiple positive outcomes. In fact, of the action “wedges” needed to address climate change, this could be one of the simplest and least expensive.
Before we get too excited, bear in mind that we have some baggage to shed. Opponents of contraception have successfully exploited tensions between the environmental and women’s communities for years, evoking ugly images to perpetuate the myth that environmentalists only care about reducing human numbers, not about women’s health and well-being. When Al Gore dared to mention family planning and population in the same breath, the far right trotted out insinuations of evil, racist, imperialistic “population control.”
The BRS research shatters this myth, showing that American environmentalists care deeply about human rights and respecting cultural differences. BRS found that environmentalists were particularly motivated by messages about how contraception empowers women to improve living conditions for themselves and their families.
All of which points to enormous potential for alliances between women’s groups and environmentalists.
How about this for a joint rallying cry? Burn less coal and distribute more contraception.