To listen to heads of state and foundation leaders step to the podium, you'd have thought Jerry Lewis was somewhere backstage. By the end of the daylong London Summit on Family Planning Wednesday, attending countries and private foundations had pledged $4.6 billion to further the use of contraceptives and reduce the numbers of children born around the world.
Despite a coming together of rich and poor nations, private organizations, and pharmaceutical companies, the donor list released by organizers at the end of the day was more usual suspects than impressive: Nine mostly European countries made new commitments to funding global family planning programs over the next five to 10 years, together with the European Commission, the UNFPA (the UN's family planning agency), assorted large population control groups (including Family Health International), several pharmaceutical groups, and philanthropists, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. By far the largest donor was the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with Melinda Gates the driving force behind the event.
Speaker after speaker pointed out that Gates, who opened and closed the event, was acting in defiance of her own Catholic Church, which teaches against the use of artificial methods of birth control. Gates has said in interviews that she disagrees with the church's position on contraceptives but is committed to not funding abortion: "From the very beginning, we said that as a foundation we will not support abortion, because we don't believe in funding it."
As a result, the UK-based group Abortion Rights complained ahead of the summit about "the glaring absence of any reference to the importance of abortion in the family planning equation." But acceptance of abortion in "reproductive health" programs and abortion-inducing drugs as contraceptives is prevalent among some of the event's chief sponsors, including the UK Department of International Development (DfID), which hosted the summit. The DfID also is currently embroiled in a controversy over its funding of forced sterilization programs in India.
A study by the Lancet released on the eve of the summit said that "satisfying the global unmet need for contraception" could save 104,000 lives per year and warned of a global rise in "unsafe abortions"-from 44 percent carried out without trained clinical help in 1995 to 49 percent in 2008. Countries where abortion is illegal comprised most of the "unsafe" abortions. (The Gates Foundation funded the study.)
Speakers at the summit referenced the "threat" of abortion as a prod to widen access to contraceptives, including for young and unmarried women and without parental or spousal consent. The Gates Foundation launched a website titled "There Is No Controversy in Contraceptives" to further universal acceptance of the drugs. At the same time, none of the billions raised are slated for prenatal or maternal healthcare, or for early childhood health.
But the aggressive contraceptive push didn't bother some faith-based groups. More than 250 religious leaders attending the summit endorsed an "Interfaith Declaration to Improve Family Health and Well-Being" in support of the summit agenda.
"Family planning is morally laudable in Christian terms because of its contribution to family well-being, women and children's health, and the prevention of abortion," said Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good (and a former vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals). "Our loving challenge to pro-life Christians: Please do not block family planning efforts, globally or domestically, because of your opposition to groups that provide both contraception and abortion. Instead, consider how a deeply pro-life moral commitment, focusing on the flourishing of all human beings made in God's image, actually ought to lead to support for family planning."
But some leaders at the summit came off as less than effusive. When Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni pledged $5 million for family planning, he told the London gathering, "That may seem small, but we're spending billions on getting electricity. We can't have development without electricity."
South Korea's ambassador to Britain echoed another concern voiced at the summit: the downside discovered by Western nations in prolonged contraceptive use, which contributes to lower-than-acceptable birth rates. South Korea has a 100 percent contraception prevalence rate, said the ambassador, Choo Kyu-Ho, and his nation began reducing birth rates in the 1960s as "a model for the world." But now, Choo said, "We suffer from a very low birth rate. … There is some expert opinion that we overdid it."
-with reporting by Wendy Wright in London