Baby no. seven billion came into the world this week; experts forecast the global population will hit eight billion by 2025.
How can the planet possibly feed and clothe all these people? Where will they all live? “Mars? The Moon?” quipped Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women. The best way to manage this explosive and unsustainable growth is to support voluntary family planning – the ability of women to time and space their pregnancies. Unlike abortion, this should not be a controversial issue. It is a proven way to give women more choice in childbearing, and it inevitably leads to lower fertility rates.
Yet the political support and funding for family planning in the developing world are still lacking, perhaps because Western donors are concerned about China's coercive one-child policy and the perception of restricting people's freedom of choice.
An estimated 215 million women – mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia – lack access to family planning. Canada has so far dedicated less than 2 per cent of its $1.1-billion Muskoka Initiative to this – though it fits in with the stated goals of improving women's and children's health, overall health systems, and nutrition (Canada is not funding abortion in this initiative).
Supporting voluntary family planning has wide-ranging benefits. It leads to girls staying in school longer, more women participating in the labour market, and a massive savings in health-care costs. In the developing world, one in 4,300 women die every year as a consequence of pregnancy. In Thailand, the decision to introduce a national family-planning policy in the late 1960s helped lead to greater productivity and higher levels of education among women.
This month, more than 2,000 scientists, donors and policy experts will gather in Senegal for a landmark international conference on family planning, funded by everyone from the World Bank to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Health experts will share information about promising new contraceptive technologies – including an injectable vasectomy and a progesterone-only vaginal ring that nursing mothers can use. Canada should study – and support – more of these reproductive innovations. This key component of women's health delivers a better return on investment than almost any other global aid initiative.