Family planning advocates are working hard to position contraceptives as the key to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As an event on Tuesday demonstrated, however, their arguments collapse under closer scrutiny.

The Wilson Center event was the third in a series focusing on the benefits of family planning for peace and security, societal resilience, and global development. Similar to previous events, the panelists stressed the importance of access to family planning and estimated the cost savings of reductions in fertility, but glossed over how to push more contraceptives in a world approaching market saturation.

In a departure from the event’s theme, keynote speaker Peter McPherson, former head of USAID, provided a brief history of the agency’s family planning work, focusing on his tenure during the Reagan administration. He recounted a telephone call with Mother Teresa, in which she urged him to “protect the unborn.” In contrast, he recalled how then-Planned Parenthood president Faye Wattleton, upset by the exclusion of abortion from family planning programs, paid for large advertisements on D.C. buses saying, “Administrator McPherson Kills Women.” He said Wattleton’s campaign, “absolutely cemented” his position in the White House because “Reagan thought [the signs] were great.”

Jay Gribble, deputy director of the Health Policy Plus Project, argued that investment in family planning would help to meet several of the SDGs, and discussed a USAID-sponsored tool to help advocates make the case for family planning based on multiple goals. He estimated that Malawi, for instance, could achieve between 60% and 68% contraceptive prevalence by 2020. Yet he did not explain how this increase in use can be achieved, especially given that only 2% of Malawian women with “unmet need” claim a lack of access to family planning,

Cornell professor Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue, noted that some have questioned whether there is a demand for family planning. He asserted that there is a demand, particularly among youth, if you broaden the definition to encompass “life planning” apart from just planning births. However, when a young man in the audience later asked what specific programming exists for young people to plan their lives apart from not getting pregnant Eloundou-Enyegue admitted, “precious little.”

Eloundou-Enyegue noted the broad agreement of the audience in favor of family planning, referring to his presentation as “preaching to the choir.” Even so, several attendees commented on what they perceived as a pervasive “dump on Africa” tone to the event.

Marlene Lee of the Population Reference Bureau spoke about the “demographic dividend” and stressed the fact that it is not automatic and depends on a variety of factors, including corruption, good governance, and the education of the emerging workforce.

Later in the discussion, Gribble pointed out that “the demographic dividend got picked up by family planning advocates because it was a way to get people outside of the health sector to say, ‘Oh, this stuff isn’t so bad after all, its going to help us get wealthier.’” He noted, however, that the concept has been greatly oversimplified at the expense of its economic and governance aspects.

Gribble quipped, “when it’s a group of family planning people, it doesn’t matter what the question is, family planning is always part of the answer.”

Rebecca Oas PhD writes for the Friday Fax of C-FAM.

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