Call it family planning or women’s rights or reverence for life, it’s a minefield today in American politics. But even this dangerous territory can boast at least a few safe hillocks. One is child spacing. Pretty much everyone, from the Koran to Dr. Spock, agrees that leaving about three years between babies is generally a good idea. Indeed, extensive research drives the point home: measures as far removed as children’s health and likelihood of survival, school performance and future earning capacity are all enhanced if parents are able to space the births of their children. That’s as true in Sioux City, Iowa as it is in San Marcos, Guatemala, Vientiane, Laos, and Alice Springs, Australia.
Heaven knows we need the hillocks of common ground. Most conversation on the subject takes the form of feisty foxhole digging, angry lashing out or plain despair. There must be a better way. After all, what is at stake is the lives and welfare of mothers and children and few will deny that that’s important.
A consultation at Georgetown University last week, organized by the Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH), highlighted this precious common ground just at the time that Capitol Hill was engulfed in discord over funding for Planned Parenthood. The meeting was prompted by a concern that family planning has become so controversial that debate is distorted or just put aside. This is largely because contraception is seen as a third rail for many religious groups. But family planning and family welfare can’t be separated. So, with support from USAID, IRH has set out to find out how religious communities really see the topic.
Their findings are still preliminary but, judging from the conversations last week, there’s considerable common ground to build on. Many if not most religious communities are not intrinsically opposed to contraception. Indeed, in poor communities across the world faith communities actively and successfully promote family planning and make no bones about it. They want more. Views on elective abortion are, of course, sharply divided, but many faith communities frame their approach primarily in terms of children and family welfare, rather than focusing on abortion itself. They are well aware of the desperation that comes with unwanted pregnancy because they live it in their communities.
Strikingly, the very diverse group at Georgetown, drawing perspectives from different corners of the globe, addressed pretty much every topic in this vital but fraught field with caring, compassion and reason. They included Catholics, Protestants from many denominations, Muslims and Jews. The group was united above all by concern for families and a desire to address the real problems that face women and children today. We should never forget that around 1,500 women a day die in childbirth, and that most of those deaths could be prevented with tools that are commonplace in America. What is sadder still is that we know too little about those deaths. Just this week new studies on stillbirths showed that most of the 2.6 million stillbirths a year worldwide could be prevented.
Many participants pointed out that language is important. “Population control” evokes shudders, while “family welfare” serves as a good starting point. The message that men need to be more part of the conversation came through strongly. And family planning should be discussed within congregations as well as clinics.
While the rhetoric of faith highlights the centrality of motherhood and respect for women, few hesitated to acknowledge the large gaps between rhetoric and reality. Recent statistics highlighting how many girls are not even allowed to be born because male offspring are preferred are perhaps the most dramatic evidence that women are not always treasured and viewed as true equals, deserving of human dignity. Age of marriage, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, and maternal mortality all have to be part of the conversation.
We need to ground discussions of family planning in respect for religious approaches. But, even more, the conversation must be anchored in evidence, about the realities of constrained options and challenges that poor families face, the dismal statistics on maternal mortality in many countries, the rights of both women and families, and the tools we have that can, in a short time, change the picture. We saw at Georgetown a heartwarming willingness to take on the tough issues and to drive ahead inspired by a common passion and determination to do better.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a visiting professor, and executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.