Population Matters

Faith, Fear and Family Planning

October 18th, 2012

Listen to the clamor this year from the religious right and you would think that most people of faith reject family planning as a moral wrong and a social evil.  Hardly.  Public opinion polls have consistently shown that support for the use of contraceptives knows no religious bounds.  Most people of faith, like their secular counterparts, believe that women should be able to prevent an unplanned pregnancy.  And that is true of practicing Catholics and Protestants alike.

That’s why it was refreshing on Monday of this week to see evangelical leaders at the National Press Club trumpeting their support for family planning.  On a panel moderated by columnist E.J. Dionne, Richard Cizik, the President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, unveiled “A Call to Christian Common Ground on Family Planning, and Maternal and Child Health.”

Making it clear that contraception is morally laudable in the view of most evangelicals, the group’s statement warned against conflating the use of contraception methods with abortion:

The association and the confusion of family planning with abortion has caused intense religious opposition by Christians and others with the result that opposition has extended not just to abortion, but to family planning as a whole.  This confused opposition to family planning is an international phenomenon, and has hindered funding and support of desperately needed family planning services both in the United States and around the world.

The statement went on to issue a special call to “pro-life” Christians, urging them to back off their opposition to the funding of organizations that provide both contraception and abortion services.  Citing the crucial role contraception plays in preventing abortions, the statement urged pro-life advocates to “consider how a deeply moral commitment, focusing on the flourishing of all human beings made in God’s image, actually ought to lead to support for family planning.”

Monday’s National Press Club event will do little or nothing to change public attitudes, but it may give faith leaders more courage in speaking out publicly about their support for government-supported family planning programs. In the past year, the religious right has dominated the political discourse, making it appear that the broader electorate has taken a sharp turn to the right on contraception.  Fundamentally, however, nothing has changed.  It’s another case of a zealous tail attempting to wag the dog.

In his opening remarks, Cizik readily acknowledged that many religious leaders are reluctant to speak out.  He said that many faith leaders regard public support for family planning as a “third rail.”

But unless more people of faith—like Cizic—dare to speak out publicly, the religious right will continue to gain ground in their efforts to shut down family planning clinics. It may not reflect the thinking of rank-and-file Republicans or the broader faith community, but the U.S. House of Representatives wants to cut all funding for Title X, the federal program that helps to provide low-income women with access to birth control.   And spurred on by the religious right, several governors and legislatures have slashed state funding for clinics serving low-income women.

Sooner or later, social conservatives may win out against family planning, and if they do, there will be no winners. Women and their families will lose.  Maternal health will suffer, and as several panelists made clear, it will lead to more abortions, not fewer. Those religious zealots who argue differently are blinded by their own convictions.

Several of the speakers at the National Press Club, including Marcia Pally, a New York University sociologist, argued that, contrary to the all the campaign rhetoric, support for family planning among evangelicals and other religious groups is actually increasing, particularly among younger voters.

That’s good news, but before it’s too late, somebody better tell the politicians.

Posted by Robert Walker, President

Malala and the first “International Day of the Girl”

October 11th, 2012

On this day, October 11, when the UN and the world observe the first International Day of the Girl, we have a chilling reminder of just how far we have to go before girls achieve true gender equality.  Malala Yousufzai, a 14-year old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to advocate for the education of girls, is fighting for her life in a Peshawar military hospital. While hopes are high that she will survive, she remains in critical condition.

Leaders from around the world today will talk about the vital importance of girls’ right to education, but all the words in the world will not speak louder than the grim tragedy that has befallen Malala.  In Pakistan, as in many other developing countries, girls lack far behind boys in educational attainment.

Child marriage is still common in many rural areas of Pakistan, including the Swat Valley, where Malala was shot.  Even in these modern times, tradition and culture conspire to deprive young girls of their adolescence, their freedom, their schooling and their hopes for a better life. In some areas of the world, including some portions of Pakistan, girls are transferred to another family in the settlement of debt.

But when it comes to gender equity or child marriage, Pakistan is far from the worst offender.  Across the border in Afghanistan girls have gone to jail or been killed for the “offense” of being raped.

Four years ago, the world rallied around Nujood Ali, a young Yemeni girl who was married off at the age of ten to a man in his thirties.  Beaten by her in-laws and raped by her husband, she walked into a local court and asked the judge to grant her a divorce on the grounds that the law in Yemen forbade her husband from having intercourse with her until she was of “suitable” age.  To the shock and relief of the world, Nujood Ali was granted the divorce.  Today, she is back in school and an internationally recognized advocate for the education of girls.

In the four years that have passed since Nujood Ali’s case seized the conscience of the world, a growing number of world leaders have joined the fight against child marriage.  A few years ago a distinguished group of former world leaders formed a group called the Elders, and subsequently launched a global campaign called “Girls not Brides.”

The momentum generated by that campaign has raised hopes that the practice of child marriage can be abolished, but despite broad acknowledgement that child marriage is a violation of human rights, the world has a long ways to go in ending the practice.   Every year, an estimated 10 million girls worldwide are married before they turn 18, often with no say in the matter.

Child marriage is one of the principal reasons that fertility rates remain high in many of the least developed countries.  It’s also a major contributor to maternal and infant mortality.  Physically, many girl brides are not mature enough to bear children, or the children they bear are born prematurely.  And by removing girls from school, child marriage perpetuates the cycle of poverty and gender oppression.

PBS just ran a television special based on Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the widely acclaimed book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.  While the book and the documentary focus, understandably, on the injustice of gender inequality, they also highlight the enormous benefits, social and economic, that would flow from educating girls and giving them full equality.

As tragic as the shooting of Malala Yousufzai was, we must turn our collective outrage into constructive action.  On this day, the first International Day of the Girl, let us all resolve to turn her personal tragedy into a global rallying cry for girls, their education, and their right to pursue their own hopes and dreams, free from the tyranny of gender inequality.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, President