In the article, “Melinda Gates launches family planning summit, says ‘no controversy’ around birth control,” the Washington Post ‘Under God’ blog elaborates on the details of the International Family Planning Summit in London in July 2012 and Melinda Gates’ April 2012 TED talk, where she discusses how contraception should be non-controversial. The article questions whether or not this can be achieved while certain methods of contraception are “condemned, particularly by religious conservatives.”
Victoria Jennings, Executive Director of IRH, is brought into the conversation to discuss how IRH has been well-positioned to develop alternative, non-hormonal options for women and couples—but not without difficulty.
[Read the full article here]
But when certain methods of birth control are condemned, particularly by religious conservatives, as abortifacients, and deep skepticism of international efforts to impact reproductive choices persist, can Gates navigate a morally and cultural complex terrain to make an international contraception effort truly non-controversial?
One group may show Gates the way. Among the participants in Wednesday’s conference is the Jesuit school Georgetown University’s Institute for Reproductive Health, which, funded primarily by USAID, researches and advocates for “Fertility Awareness Methods.’ It’s an approach to avoiding pregnancy that is in line with Catholic teaching, yet is also used by couples who are not Catholic but prefer a more natural approach.
Such approaches include, for example, the Standard Days Method, developed by Georgetown, that “identifies a fixed fertile window” during a woman’s menstrual cycle and asks her to avoid unprotected sex on those days.
Institute director Victoria Jennings occupies a sometimes-tense space between natural methods embraced by religious conservatives, and a family planning world that can see natural approaches as ineffective. Her organization’s approach is non-religious –no theology required– but Jennings can have a tough sell when pitching Fertility Awareness Methods to the family planning world. She also anticipates push-back from religious conservatives to the conference’s goal of bringing tens of millions of women access to contraceptives.
“Because of the traditional conflict that has developed between the Catholic Church and other family planning and reproductive health organizations around the world, [Fertility Awareness Methods] are sometimes are viewed with some doubt and suspicion,” Jennings says. She adds that she sees participation in the conference as an opportunity “to reach new people in a way that really does work.”
In the family planning world, Jennings says, “there certainly is the perception… that a number of faith-based organizations that would otherwise be in a position to promote family planning as a social good and as a benefit to the family have in fact done just the opposite…They tend to be some of the more conservative groups who are very much concerned about the preservation of traditional family values and see the whole idea of family planning as being very challenging to that.”
On the other hand, adds Jennings “there are others who are concerned about specific methods of family planning, perceiving them, generally inaccurately, to be in some way linked to abortion. The very unfortunate linkage of family planning and abortion has exacerbated the situation with some of the conservative, faith-based perspectives.”
Jennings promotes Fertility Awareness Method as a hormone-free approach that often brings women in developing countries to family planning for the first time. “It’s something that she doesn’t have to necessarily even engage with a health care provider around. This is something that is just something that is natural for her body.” Jennings also says that like condoms and pills, natural approaches “need to be used correctly” but calls them “very effective methods.”
As she approaches the conference Wednesday, Jennings sees an opportunity to bring an often-underground view to the family planning universe: “We know we need all hands on deck to do this. There are a variety of approaches and they need to be respected.”