Law and Public Policy

Stop the Partisan Wrangling over Family Planning

October 26, 2012  • Peggy Clark

This election season, the candidates have sparred over all the predictable topics: unemployment, the national debt, gun control. But they have also faced off over on an issue that stopped being controversial a long time ago for most Americans and for most of the world: family planning.

Many of you reading this blog may have considered when and how you might have children, and many children you might have when the time comes—in other words, you have planned your families. You have done this not as an ideological or fraught issue, but as part of a family conversation and choice. But US support for voluntary family planning programs, both at home and abroad, has become a topic of increasingly bitter partisan debate.

The debate began, perhaps, when presidential hopeful Rick Santorum declared that contraception “is not okay.” It reached an absurd peak when GOP donor Foster Friess memorably suggested that women might rely instead on aspirin between their knees. And it continued through the presidential debates, with Mitt Romney vowing to cut funding for family planning in the US and around the world

The Aspen Institute is a non-partisan think tank, and,I am here to say that family planning is a non-partisan issue. It would be a non-issue entirely, if we could step back from politics as usual for a minute and see the big picture and speak honestly about our own lives.

The value of family planning has long been settled fact for most of the world’s nations. For nearly half a century, the global community has recognized the human right to decide the number and spacing of one’s children and to have the information, education, and means to do so.

The US has played a leadership role in this area, supporting voluntary family planning and reproductive health programs around the world. For decades, those programs enjoyed broad, bipartisan support, and have proven enormously beneficial for women, families, and societies around the world. First, they save women’s lives—by reducing unintended pregnancies, voluntary family planning programs have cut maternal deaths in developing countries by 40 percent over the past 20 years. They save children’s lives by allowing couples to space births and avoid high-risk pregnancies. They help families educate their children and escape from poverty. And by enabling families to decide how many children to have, family planning leads to lower fertility rates, which in turn spurs economic growth.

Some have argued that in this era of austerity we simply cannot afford to support these programs. But in fact, family planning is extraordinarily cost-effective: every dollar spent on family planning and reproductive health reaps savings of up to $9 in other development sectors.

Despite these well-documented benefits, family planning programs are under attack. Mitt Romney has vowed to “get rid of” Planned Parenthood here in the US. Internationally, he would reinstate the onerous global gag rule, which led to devastating cuts in family planning and maternal and child health programs around the world during the Bush years. And he would withhold funding for the United Nations Population Fund, which works in 150 countries to improve poor women’s health, prevent infant mortality, and fight the scourge of HIV/AIDS.

President Obama has been far friendlier to family planning: he lifted the global gag rule upon taking office, supports Planned Parenthood, and has increased funding for family planning abroad.

Still, under both Republicans and Democrats, support has fallen short of the growing need for support for family planning. As a result, more than half of all reproductive-age women in developing countries—222 million in all—are still in need of access to modern contraception. According to the Guttmacher Institute, addressing that need would save the lives of 79,000 women and more than one million infants each year. It would also prevent some 54 million unintended pregnancies and 26 million abortions (mostly of the unsafe, back-alley kind).

Investing in family planning is the compassionate thing to do. Given its cost-effective benefits for public health and economic development, it’s also the smart thing to do.

And beyond the Beltway, it’s not even a controversial thing to do. A recent survey found that a strong majority of Republicans—73 percent—believe that family planning is an important component of basic preventive health care—a view that is shared by a whopping 93 percent of Democrats and 88 percent of Independents. Another poll found that, across the political spectrum, a majority of Americans favor “helping poor countries provide family planning and reproductive health services to their citizens.”

It is time to stop this polarized, partisan debate and unite—men and women, Republicans and Democrats—in support of family planning programs at home and abroad.