Population Matters

Teen Pregnancy on the Rise

January 27th, 2010

According to a new Guttmacher Institute report, teen pregnancy rates and abortions have increased for the first time in over a decade. Data for 2006 shows a 3% increase in teen pregnancy from 2005, with 71.5 pregnancies for every 1,000 women under 20 years old. The abortion rate in 2006 increased by 1%.  Guttmacher notes that the increase coincided with the Bush Administration’s increased reliance on abstinence only education programs.

The Washington Post writes:

“The report comes as Congress might consider restoring federal funding to sex-education programs that focus on abstinence. The Obama administration eliminated more than $150 million in funds for such groups, but the Senate’s health-care reform legislation would reinstate $50 million.”

The Guttmacher report was released just days after Lifetime television aired their latest movie, “The Pregnancy Pact,” which is loosely based on the 17 teenage girls from Gloucester, Massachusetts who became pregnant in 2008.  The movie offered some compelling insights. In one scene a parent (a strong advocator for family values) announces that the school needs to raise an extra $13,000 for one extra spot at the student daycare center.  A reporter following the story at the time raises her hand in the meeting, and questions the logic of spending the $13,000 versus handing out condoms that cost $1.  Lifetime does a good job in discussing the issue and even offers discussion guides, which parents and teens can download off of its website in order to continue the conversation.

It is clear that members of our government need to take a stronger stance in advocating for comprehensive sex education and access to contraceptives in schools, a topic that Lifetime was not afraid to address.

Posted by Emily Pontarelli, Program Associate

Pakistan’s Untold Story

January 14th, 2010

Zubeida Mustafa, a Pakistani journalist who recently retired from Dawn, her nation’s most widely circulated English language daily newspaper, wrote a column last month on Pakistan’s declining population growth rate.  A two-time winner of the Population Institute’s Global Media Award, she reveals that an increase in unsafe abortions, not contraceptives, is behind much of the decline.

The question that has intrigued demographers is how Pakistan’s population growth rate has been falling when contraceptive prevalence has not increased proportionally. The NCMNH and Guttmacher fact sheet answers this question succinctly. ‘The disconnect between low contraceptive use and a relatively small average family size suggests that women are relying on abortion as a method of controlling their fertility.’ Unsurprisingly, the more backward a province the lower its contraceptive use and the higher the abortion rate.

She reports that the problem in Pakistan, as in many developing countries, is not just the unavailability of contraceptives or family planning services, it’s also the low status of women.

As is generally the case in issues related to reproductive health, the problem is rooted in the poor status of women in our society. This time one cannot even blame the law, the prevailing myths notwithstanding. The abortion law as amended in 1990 to better conform to Islamic teachings is quite liberal. In fact, no one has been known to have been prosecuted under this law.

The problem lies in the policy that denies many women easy access to contraceptive cover. Strangely, men have been absolved of all responsibility in family planning matters. As a result the onus of finding a solution rests on women, and their stories are heart rending. At the NCMNH meeting Dr Saadiah Pal presented a number of case studies of women who opted for abortion, some of them dying in the process. But could they be blamed? One who was pregnant for the 12th time was the sole breadwinner of the family and her husband was a drug addict. Another had eight children and was a beggar. And the stories went on.

But as Mustafa points out, the problem is not just cultural, it’s also a failure of political will.  In a country where there are still large pockets of extreme poverty and high rates of maternal death, the government and donor nations are simply not doing enough to enable women to avoid unwanted or unintended pregnancies.

These are the stories the population welfare department should be listening to. The gynecologists and obstetricians are familiar with them as they have to bear the brunt of abortions that go wrong. They know what is needed and this was reiterated at the meeting mentioned above. Their recommendation to show the way forward was, ‘Prevent unintended pregnancy to reduce abortions. Ensure availability of quality family planning services. Increase health and population budget to six per cent of GDP.’

These words sum up in a nutshell what is missing in our population programme that is not making any headway. There is a total absence of political will especially at the highest level and an utter failure to comprehend how basic a slowdown of population growth rate is to the success of our economic development.

Sadly, Pakistan’s untold story is also the untold story of many other developing nations, including neighboring Afghanistan, where women on average still bear six children and maternal and infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world.  Last week, Secretary Clinton gave a major address at the State Department in which she vowed to make the health and wellbeing of women, including access to family planning, a major focus point of U.S. foreign policy and foreign assistance.  Pakistan and Afghanistan would be good places to start.

"A woman listens to a midwife talk about contraceptives while giving her advice on the prevention of unwanted births at a clinic in Pakistan. Since abortion is severely stigmatised in our society women are reluctant to talk about this issue. Most of them do not seek professional help." – Photo by AP.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Is 2010 the Year?

January 11th, 2010

Is 2010 the year that America’s support for international family planning assistance takes a giant leap forward?  Maybe.

Last Friday, I attended the State Department’s observance of the 15th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) that was held in Cairo, Egypt in 1994.  All of the speakers at the event, including Secretary Clinton and Rajiv Shah, the new Director of USAID, fully embraced the ICPD agenda, Millennium Development Goal 5 on maternal health, the need for family planning, and the critical importance of empowering and educating women.

The only question left unanswered was whether the commitments would translate next month into a major increase in the Administration’s budget request for international family planning and reproductive health.

Last year, the International Family Planning Coalition asked $1 billion for international family planning assistance, a funding level that President Obama had supported when he served in the U.S. Senate. Last year, five former directors of the Population and Reproductive Health Program at USAID called for an even higher level of assistance:  $1.2 billion. The Obama Administration, however, proposed only $593.4 million for FY2010, a 9 percent increase above the prior year.  In the end, Congress bumped up the funding level to $648 million for FY2010, twice the increase recommended by the Administration.

In her speech, however, Secretary Clinton made clear the value of family planning and reproductive health.  She said,

…we are convinced of the value of investing in women and girls, and we understand there is a direct line between a woman’s reproductive health and her ability to lead a productive, fulfilling life. And therefore, we believe investing in the potential of women and girls is the smartest investment we can make. It is connected to every problem on anyone’s mind around the world today. So we are rededicating ourselves to the global efforts to improve reproductive health for women and girls. Under the leadership of this Administration, we are committed to meeting the Cairo goals.

Secretary Clinton and the other members of her team are to be commended for their leadership on family planning and women’s rights.  Let’s hope that their conviction and commitment are fully reflected in the Administration’s upcoming budget.

U.S. Department of State

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President