Faith leaders lend support to family planning campaign

Posted: 31 July 2012

Leaders from faith-based organisations, including Catholics, Protestants and Muslims, have thrown their weight behind efforts by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the British Government to put family planning firmly back on the development agenda.

Meeting in London in the wake of the London Family Planning Summit, which pledged over $4 billion dollars to help take voluntary family planning services to an additional 120 million women and girls in the world’s poorest nations by 2020, they lent their support to a declaration agreed by faith groups from around the world meeting in Nairobi last year.

A group of women hold their newborns at a family planning clinic in Kampala, Uganda. Photo: 2001 Hugh Rigby/CCP, Courtesy of Photoshare
Family planning must have higher priority. Clinic in Kampala, Uganda.
© Hugh Rigby/CCP, Courtesy of Photoshare

This acknowledged the many health benefits of family planning education and services, which they said could save the lives of some 600,000 newborn children in developing countries each year. In addition 150,000 maternal deaths from abortion and other pregnancy-related causes could be prevented -- and at least 340,000 children saved from losing their mothers.

The London meeting, convened by Christian Connections for International Health (CCIH), but involving secular as well as religious participants, sought to counter the religious and political sensitivities to sexuality and family planning which, they said, had played a big part in holding back progress over the last two decades

They also aim to support faith communities which are already working with governments, donors and other secular partners to bring family planning back as a major force in maternal, child and community health.

Missed opportunity

“Many people think that religious leaders are against family planning. Of course, some are, but many, probably most, are not,” Ray Martin, executive director of CCIH, told the Financial Times. “Many faith based organizations are finding ways to promote family planning that show respect for the religious beliefs and sensitivities of the communities that they work in.”

John Guillebaud, Emeritus Professor of Family Planning and Reproductive Health at University College London, said that most in the reproductive health community remain unaware of the work faith groups are doing to provide services, resulting in a missed opportunity to leverage the work of these groups. Faith communities are often able to reach vulnerable populations because of their wide-reaching networks and the trust they earn in their communities.

“The only way the ambitious goals in child health and family planning can be reached is to mobilize the faith community along with other stakeholders, an ‘all hands-on-deck’ approach,” said Ray Martin. “Often the hardest-to-reach populations in rural areas and the urban poor are the ones most likely to be reachable by faith bases organisations.”.

Professor Andrew Tomkins, a health, nutrition and HIV advisor for the Institute of Child Health at University College London summed up the negative comments when he said: "Faith groups are regarded as the problem, not the solution. In family planning, we're still demons and not deliverers. But we’re not very good in making our case and talking about our work.”

In a post-summit blog Gary Darmstadt, head of the Gates Foundation’s Family Health Division, said that faith organisations were “critical to family planning”, which “provide up to 40 percent of the total healthcare in many countries in Africa.”

Direct plea

Professor Tomkins said that church leaders’ views certainly do influence behaviour. “We should educate more pastors,” said Samuel Mwenda, general secretary of the Christian Health Association of Kenya, which is already doing this. “They are very receptive to education. Once empowered, they can be very effective.”

Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good made a direct plea to pro-life Christians: “Please do not block family planning efforts, globally or domestically, because of your opposition to groups that provide both contraception and abortion. Instead, consider how a deeply pro-life moral commitment, focusing on the flourishing of all human beings made in God’s image, actually ought to lead to support for family planning.”

The focus of all speakers was on health, but the subject of population was raised by John Guillebaud who pointed out that the Biblical commandment ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’ could now be said to have been obeyed. “The earth with 7000 million humans rising by 84 million per year is now, surely, ‘full’. God did not command that the earth be over-filled...”

He also coined perhaps the most memorable phrase of the day in the title of his presentation “Praise the Lord for Contraceptives!” - a sentiment that these particular faith groups would like to see invoked much more in the future.