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Originally published July 11, 2012 at 12:18 PM | Page modified July 12, 2012 at 10:14 AM

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Corrected version

Gates Foundation: $1B for contraceptives in developing countries

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Wednesday that it will spend more than $1 billion over the next eight years to increase access to contraceptives in the developing world and research new methods of birth control.

Seattle Times science reporter

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Innovation and social change will both be necessary to improve access to birth control around the world, Melinda Gates said Wednesday, announcing that her foundation will devote more than $1 billion to the cause between now and 2020.

Speaking at the London summit on family planning that she organized with the British government, Gates outlined several of the initiatives the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will focus on in the coming years, including efforts to bring down the cost of birth control so that it will be within reach of the world's poorest women.

"Let's not be shy about admitting that we're trying to do something very ambitious," she said. "We're committed to supporting the leadership of the countries where the work is being done and we're committed to educating women about their options."

British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to double UK spending for international family planning, to $1.6 billion over the next eight years — by far the biggest donation announced at the summit.

"Family planning is absolutely fundamental to any hope of tackling poverty in our world," Cameron said.

The summit collected $2 billion in pledges from developing nations and $2.6 billion from wealthy countries and foundations, said Andrew Mitchell, Britain's secretary for international aid. The money will be used to make contraceptives available to another 120 million women around the world by 2020 — which proponents say will prevent 100 million unintended pregnancies, 50 million abortions and 200,000 maternal deaths.

Birth control was the first focus for the fledgling Gates Foundation in the 1990s, but the emphasis shifted to saving children's lives through vaccines and disease cures. So Wednesday's announcement was particularly exciting for Jane Hutchings, who received some of those early Gates grants as director of reproductive health for the Seattle nonprofit Path.

"To be honest, I didn't expect to see anything like this during my professional life," she said. "It's fantastic."

Family planning nearly vanished from the global agenda over the past several decades, partly as a result of past abuses, such as forced sterilizations, and partly because of opposition from religious conservatives.

Gates said she and her husband, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, made a careful study of the issues and were swayed by the strong evidence that giving women the power to limit family size not only improves health but also increases children's school attendance, leads to more prosperous families and can raise countries' GDPs.

"That's why ... we had absolutely no hesitation in making this decision," said Melinda Gates, who has described the new initiative as her "life's work."

A practicing Catholic, Gates does not support abortion but points out that 82 percent of American Catholics find contraception acceptable.

"Of course I wrestled with this," she said in an interview with The Guardian. "As a Catholic I believe in this religion, there are amazing things about this religion, amazing moral teachings that I do believe in, but I also have to think about how we keep women alive. I believe in not letting women die. I believe in not letting babies die, and to me that's more important than arguing about what method of contraception (is right)."

Just as in the West, African nations comprise a mix of people, some of whom will choose to use birth control and others who won't, Hutchings said. "I don't think it's accurate to say that there's anyplace in the world where the resistance is so strong that it could never happen there," she said.

The new funding doubles the Gates Foundation's spending on family planning, from $70 million a year to $140 million a year through 2020. Gates said much of the work will focus on innovations, such as a simple, new syringe called Uniject developed by Path.

Path has joined with drugmaker Pfizer to provide 12 million doses of the injectable contraceptive Depo-Provera in the new syringes, which are easier to ship and use than traditional ones. If village health workers can administer the shots, it would save women the long walk to a clinic, Hutchings said.

With Gates funding, Path is also working to develop a birth-control pill women could take before or after sex to prevent pregnancy, instead of having to take daily doses.

Many improvements will come through seeing the issue from a woman's perspective, Gates said. For example, many African clinics stock condoms as their only birth-control option — even though it can be very difficult for a woman to ask her husband to use one. Research on contraceptives has also dwindled in recent years, and the Gates Foundation hopes to turn that trend around, she said. Pilot programs are also working to leverage nations' buying power and bring down the cost of contraceptives, but they need to be scaled up.

With more funding, family planning is now on a par with some of the Gates Foundation's other priorities, including programs to fight malaria and tuberculosis. But it still represents a small slice of the foundation's nearly $3 billion in annual spending.

That doesn't bother Hutchings, who is delighted to see a window finally open for a long-neglected field. And she suspects this may be only the opening salvo.

"I believe Melinda Gates is committed," she said. "From my own professional experience, once you start engaging, you see greater needs and you work to meet those needs."

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published July, 11, 2012, was corrected July 12, 2012.. A previous version of this story misstated the number of maternal deaths that proponents of increasing access to birth control say could be prevented. That number is 200,000.

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