The phrase "family planning" has the whiff of a more euphemistic age: in the affluent West, it has become a fact of life both as familiar as brushing one's teeth, and as basic to the health of society. It is hard to imagine how a country like Britain could have coped with the complex challenges of the modern world if families had continued to grow in size, as they did in the 19th century.
But in much of the developing world contraception is still either taboo or unavailable, or both. In sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, supplies are short; and it is here that nearly all the countries where women have on average more than five children are located. In consequence, the pace of population growth in that region is a critical problem, with numbers far outstripping economic growth.
Today, with more than 200 million women and girls in the developing world not using effective contraception, there are 75 million unintended pregnancies every year. And many millions of women risk death or disability as a result. That was the message that Melinda Gates brought to a London summit on the issue yesterday, organised jointly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Department for International Development. In response, the Government's commitment to double the aid budget for family planning to £180m for the next eight years is to be welcomed.
The benefits of ubiquitous access to contraception may be obvious – both as regards population growth, and also as a tangible route to empowering women, with all the positive consequences for social stability that result. But the policy is still controversial. Pope Benedict XVI, for one, remains implacably opposed to all forms of interventionist contraception. That Ms Gates is a devout Catholic herself only adds to the commendation she deserves for her efforts to address the issue.
Put simply, if the generation growing up today in the poorest parts of the world is to have any chance of a decent life, and if their mothers are to have some control over their lives, then better access to family planning is a must.
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