Yesterday, at a family planning summit in London, the billionaire philanthropist and practising Catholic Melinda Gates made a historic pledge: She vowed to dedicate her life to improving access to contraception for women in the developing world, backing up her words with a $560m donation to family planning services.
The Independent praises Mrs Gates, “That Mrs Gates is a devout Catholic only adds to the commendation she deserves for her efforts to address the issue,” and Saska Graville in women’s magazine Red contrasts her achievement with the sad fate of Eva Rausing, another billionaires in the news this week. Charlize Theron (@CharlizeAfrica) speaks for Hollywood's many philanthropists with an interest in Africa: “Did you guys see this video from @melindagates and @gatesfoundation? So powerful – check it out!”
Praise from other sources has been more muted. Al Jazeera's Manuela Picq accuses Gates of ‘let them eat cake’ irrelevance: “Approaching contraception as the one silver bullet is misguided. In healthcare, it is usually not one thing, but a broader array of factors, an integrated healthcare system that saves lives.”
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan also urges caution. Last month he told the BBC of the cultural difficulties surrounding birth control “It is difficult for you to tell any Nigerian to number their children because…it is not expected to reject God’s gifts.”
Meanwhile, Gates’s Vatican-flouting stance has been predictably controversial in the Catholic press. Matthew Hanley of The Catholic Herald criticises a “fundamentally evasive approach to maternal and infant mortality”, arguing that “artificial contraception, by virtue of the resulting collapse of marriage, has had an impoverishing effect [in the developed world] – even if the affluent consider it a routine accessory.” She has, however, been publicly supported by the nuns of the Ursuline Academy of Dallas who issued a statement proclaiming themselves “Proud of Melinda French Gates, her dedication to social justice, her compassion for the undeserved…”
As Time magazine points out, in the US especially, her pledge has political as well as religious resonance: “conservative religious groups, particularly in the US have tried to link family planning to forced abortion. In 2002, President George W Bush cut funding to the UN Population Fund completely, turning birth control in to a bad word. The cause has yet to recover. Backing from Gates, a Catholic who is respected by conservatives and liberals alike, could turn this around.”