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Originally published July 11, 2012 at 7:36 PM | Page modified July 12, 2012 at 8:00 AM

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Gates Foundation's bold birth-control effort has big benefits

Having more women control their reproductive lives has the potential to save children, improve the lives of women and advance countries that embrace reproductive rights. All of that is ultimately good for men, too.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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On its website, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has the phrase, "Contraceptives Are Not Controversial."

That may be wishful thinking, but the benefits to be gained by making birth control available to more women are real.

The Seattle-based foundation has been in the business of saving the lives of children in the world's poorest countries, and its decision to make contraception a major agenda furthers that effort.

Having more women control their reproductive lives has the potential to save children, improve the lives of women and advance countries that embrace reproductive rights. All of that is ultimately good for men, too.

The foundation will focus on countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where women start getting pregnant early and the fertility rate is about five children per woman.

That has negative consequences. Prominent among them is that girls who get pregnant as adolescents are unlikely to continue their educations.

We know the children of more-educated women have better life prospects than the children of women with less education.

In the targeted countries, literacy rates among adult women are low. Women have few options for work and in any case are often constantly involved in child rearing.

Their health and the health of their children suffer. In fact, the foundation points to research that spacing births three years apart decreases deaths of children 4 and younger by 25 percent. And a Johns Hopkins study found making contraception available can lower the maternal mortality rate by a third.

At present, nearly 13 million adolescent girls worldwide give birth each year.

Once it probably made sense to procreate early and to have as many children as possible.

Early in our history as a species, we needed every pair of hands we could get. Even recently in our own young country, when a good portion of the population worked farms, a big family was an asset.

And until modern times, even the most advanced societies could expect children to die from disease, accidents and other causes at rates far higher than the industrial world experiences today.

The world is different now, and the differences have allowed the human population to grow at unprecedented rates.

From 1950 to 2010 the world's population tripled. Fortunately, the birthrate slowed over that period. The worldwide average is about 2.5 children per woman, except in poorer countries like those the foundation is addressing. There, it is still the same average five births per woman that it was worldwide in 1950.

Progress around the world has been uneven in often related ways.

In the United States we've just celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the legislation that gave girls and women more opportunity to participate in sports.

But in too many countries, girls and women don't even have a choice about when and who they marry, or about having children.

The idea that women are secondary and must obey the dictates of men hasn't entirely disappeared from our own country, and we still have arguments over reproductive rights that are rooted in a distant past.

Technologically, humans have the means not to be entirely ruled by biology, but socially, being ruled by men is still a major hindrance for women.

That continuing dominance will be the Gates Foundation's biggest struggle, and it is why this choice is a courageous one, especially for Melinda Gates whose church (she's Catholic) takes a different position on reproduction. Wealth can't shield a person from the bite of the criticism she is likely to face.

But it will take bold people like her to move reproductive control beyond political controversy.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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