Access to family planning helps not only women and their families, but also the economies of countries across the globe, according to the authors of an updated report from the UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.
The report, titled The State of World Population 2012: By Choice, Not By Chance: Family Planning, Human Rights and Development, was released Wednesday.
"Providing family planning delivers immeasurable rewards to women, their families and communities and nations around the world," said Dr. Margaret Greene, the lead author of the report, at a press briefing.
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While much progress has been made, much more is needed, according to the update.
The report is a country-by-country look at family planning, showing trends in contraceptive use and outlining links to lowered abortion rates due to family planning.
About 867 million women of childbearing age in developing countries have a need for modern contraceptives, according to the report.
Currently, about 645 million have access to them. The unmet need is still large, obviously.
"There are 222 million women in developing countries who are unable to exercise their right to family planning," Greene said.
Enabling women and men to choose when and if to start families, Greene said, dramatically changes lives. "Women and their children and families live healthier, longer lives because of family planning," she said.
When women can plan their pregnancies, she said, accidental ones don't interfere with educational or work plans.
Access to family planning is viewed as an essential human right. That right has been a guiding principle since 1994, when 179 governments assembled and adopted the groundbreaking Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), according to Greene.
"Money is just part of the solution," she said. Legal, logistical and other obstacles must be removed.
Among the recommendations made in the report are to reinforce a rights-based approach to family planning, ensure equality by focusing on excluded groups and raise funds needed to invest fully in family planning globally.
Even in the U.S., cost is an issue, said Susan Cohen of the Guttmacher Institute, who also spoke at the briefing. "Here in the U.S., we know that contraceptive use is nearly universal, but cost is an obstacle for women to use the most effective methods."
When free contraception is offered, women take advantage of it, she said.
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Cohen said she was ''stunned'' to see the recent attack on family planning funding in the U.S., referring to House Republicans' attempts to defund Planned Parenthood.
"I believe this report will help build our case for funding for the program, not only in the Americas, but other countries."
Greene cited a few countries covered in the report, that have made impressive progress.
"In Bangladesh, the contraceptive prevalence—the proportion of women of childbearing age who are using birth control—has increased dramatically, and it been accompanied by a very significant increase in female education and employment opportunities for women in the garment industry."
In India, she said, there has also been a substantial increase in contraceptive use, and the range of methods used is also broader than in the past.
"Sri Lanka is another excellent example," she said.
Today's report by the UNPFA will literally save lives, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D—NY) said at the briefing.
"It underscores the absolute need for women across the globe to have access to family planning services that are affordable and available," she said.
"This report is a roadmap for policymakers to help create the conditions that support peoples' right to plan their own families and for women's choices to be heard loud and clear."
Among the costs of ignoring family planning, she said, are poverty, poor health and gender inequality.
"Family planning is valued virtually everywhere," Green said. But it is not yet universal, she added. That is the work yet to be done.
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Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles journalist who writes about health. She doesn't believe inmiracle cures, but continues to hope someone will discover a way for joggers to maintain their pace.