Humanism and Population Control: A Human Return On Investment

Last week I attended a congressional briefing in the Senate on the topic of family planning. The briefing, called “Evidence and Action: Why Family Planning is a Best Buy in Global Development,” was organized by Population Action International (PAI) and sponsored by Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

The briefing focused mainly on the impacts of family planning on infant mortality, maternal health, educational attainment, and the spread of HIV/AIDS. The world has known for some time that as people have fewer children, with wider gaps of time between subsequent births, the health of those children and their mothers generally improve. Likewise, the global community is well aware of the fact that as people have fewer children they are able to devote more resources to their upbringing, which typically leads to higher educational attainment, longer and healthier lives, and the ability to earn a higher wage.

After moving past the numerous well-known benefits of family planning services, the briefing spent a considerable amount of time addressing how, in this era of austerity and small government, family planning initiatives are a smart choice for federal funding as they have a history of massive returns on very small investments.  An issue brief by Population Action International that was distributed at the event illustrated this point, stating that family planning investments “save money in other development areas including education, immunization, water and sanitation, maternal health, and malaria.” Every dollar invested in family planning “has shown saving in other development areas ranging from $2 in Ethiopia to more than $6 in Guatemala and up to $9 in Bolivia.”

What many people don’t know is that funding for family planning initiatives actually make up a very small portion of the federal budget. According to the brief, “U.S. funding for foreign assistance make up just over 1 percent of the federal budget. Of that amount, only a small fraction is allocated for family planning and reproductive health programs.” A memo that was also distributed by Population Action International shows just how little funding family planning and reproductive health services receive from the federal government—an “estimated $598 million was appropriated” for 2013, about $12 million less than was spent by the government in 2012. While funding decreased in 2013 largely due to sequestration, family planning and reproductive health advocates were overjoyed to see that for 2014 President Obama is “proposing $635.4 million for bilateral and multilateral international Family Planning/Reproductive Health assistance—a $37.4 million or six percent increase.”

While hundreds of millions of dollars might sound like a lot of money, it pales in comparison to the 3.8 trillion dollars that the government will spend in 2013. And as our friends at PAI showed us, the return on that money has been monumental, with both lives and money being saved at tremendous rates.

The benefits of family planning are so great and the medical consequences and funding required is so negligible that the only reason someone could oppose it would be if they found family planning initiatives to be immoral. As there is no real rational basis to opposing benefits like longevity and the empowerment of women, all that is left to base one’s objections to family planning must lie with moral restrictions found in books of scripture. That’s why the lead opponents to family planning efforts are religious institutions like the Catholic Church, which is infamous for its opposition to contraceptives and abortion services.

I hope that the institutions that disdain people who plan when they want to start a family, and who use tools such as contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies, learn about the real world benefits of these programs. While I understand that to them all life, both potential and actual, is sacred, I would ask them to study the facts on the ground and evaluate whether the very real suffering of an overburdened mother and her family is less important than the potential life of an unborn fetus.