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Melinda Gates challenges Vatican by vowing to improve contraception

Catholic philanthropist predicts women in Africa and Asia will soon ignore church teaching on birth control

By Joanna Moorhead | 11 July 2012
The Guardian

The billionaire philanthropist Melinda Gates, a practising Catholic, has thrown down the gauntlet to the Vatican and vowed to dedicate the rest of her life to improving access to contraception across the globe.

Gates, who with her husband, Bill, the founder of Microsoft, is one of the world’s biggest players on development issues, predicted that women in Africa and Asia would soon be “voting with their feet”, as women in the west have done, and would ignore the church’s ban on artificial birth control.

Gates, who was a speaker at the London Summit on Family Planning organised by her foundation in conjunction with the UK government and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said that since she announced her new direction a few weeks ago she had been inundated with messages of support from Catholic women, including nuns.

“A church is made up of its members, and one of the things this campaign might do is help women speak out. I’ve had thousands of women come on to websites and say” ‘I’m a Catholic, but I believe in contraception.’ It’s going to be women voting with their feet.”

Gates said that in the west the bishops said one thing, but ordinary Catholics did another. “In my country 82% of Catholics say contraception is morally acceptable. So let the women in Africa decide. The choice is up to them.”

Melinda Gates takes on tradition Catholic teaching on contraception

She admitted, though, that she had agonised over whether to speak out in defiance of the church hierarchy. “Of course I wrestled with this. As a Catholic I believe in this religion, there are amazing things about this religion, amazing moral teachings that I do believe in, but I also have to think about how we keep women alive. I believe in not letting women die, I believe in not letting babies die, and to me that’s more important than arguing about what method of contraception [is right].”

Being a woman and a mother were at the heart of her decision to focus on family planning, said Gates, who has three children aged 16, 13 and 10. “It would have been nice to stay as a private citizen but part of the reason why I’m so public is that it does take a woman to speak out about these issues.

“Why have women not been at the heart of the global health agenda? It’s because we’ve not had enough women speaking out. We need to give a voice to women all over the planet.

“This will be my life’s work.”

Wednesday’s conference, which brings together 250 delegates from around the world including Jakaya Kikwete, the president of Tanzania, Chantal Compaoré, first lady of Burkina Faso, and the Bangladeshi minister of health, AFM Ruhal Haque, is the launch of what the Gates Foundation is billing “a groundbreaking effort to make affordable, lifesaving contraceptive, information, services and supplies available to an additional 120 million girls and women in the world’s poorest countries by 2020″. Gates announced on Wednesday that her foundation was pouring $560m over the next eight years into improving access to birth control. The UK government is pledging to double its efforts on family planning, up from its current £90m a year to £180m a year.

In her interview with the Guardian, Gates said the moment had now come to push contraception back to the top of the development agenda. “The reason it fell off the agenda was because we made it controversial – people backed away because of fear. But today there are 200 million women who want to have access to contraception, and if we’re not serving them that’s not right.”

She said that when she and her husband first set up their foundation 18 years ago, they had originally focused on family planning but had then shifted their agenda to providing vaccines after realising that childhood mortality was the top issue, and that women would not choose to have fewer children until they were sure their children would survive childhood. “But once we saw that was happening, we could take family planning back on,” she said.

It was meeting women in Africa and Asia on her travels through the developing world, said Gates, that made her determined to push contraception back on to the agenda. “Over and over again women have told me that all they want is to be able to put time between one child and another child. It’s a universal thing to want to feed your children and to educate your children, and women know that the only way they can do that is not have so many. And this campaign could give them the tools to make sure they can do that.”

The campaign would include research to look at developing better methods of contraception, said Gates – and these methods could, in time, benefit women in the west as well as women in Africa and Asia.

“What I’m most excited about is thinking about tools that will have fewer side effects and could be longer-lasting,” she said. “Luckily for women in the west it’s not a life-and-death situation, but for women in the developing countries it is, which is why I believe in putting them at the heart of it.”

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5 Responses to Melinda Gates challenges Vatican by vowing to improve contraception

  1. veronique Reply

    July 12, 2012 at 5:46 pm

    I am so pleased that Melinda Gates who has such a high profile has publicly declared that contraception in the African continent will become her life's work.

    I am no religionist but that Gates should be prepared to take on the Vatican in the interests of health and family planning in a country that desperately needs it is to be applauded. The more so because she states she is a practising Catholic. She is quite correct that women are turning to contraception to limit the size of their families. Italy itself has an annual population growth rate of 0.42% based on 2011 figures from the CIA and that is down from 2009 figures issued by the World Bank of 0.65%

    I have long been utterly critical of the Catholic Church and its heartless (but religiously interpreted) policies that have led to more infant mortality and more hardship as well as the increase in HIV Aids in Africa because the Catholic proselytisers have denied contraception and family planning to African women.

    Hats off to Gates. She has the funds, the will, the strength of character, the compassion and an understanding of the population problems facing the whole planet. Her will will prevail because she has something concrete and practical to offer – unlike her religious opponent.

  2. Ray Dubuque Reply

    August 11, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    Melinda, you are great! Too great to be gagged by the R.C. church – which you are as long as you want to identify as a Roman Catholic!
    For 33 years I was more Catholic than you as a woman could ever dream of being. Yet, If I could escape from the R,C. Church after 24 years of education in its schools and seminaries culminating with ordination & a teaching position in a seminary, almost anyone can. I'm not selling anything or telling people how to live their lives. All I want to do is to help people to free themselves from the tyranny and stupidity of this church, by exposing the truth about this very human, very dishonest organization at a site you can find by Googling "Jesuswouldbefurious" (one word).

  3. Ray Dubuque Reply

    August 11, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    This blog is host to a great article, http://churchandstate.org.uk/2012/08/the-holy-see… , which shows that the R.C. church has been the greatest obstacle to everything that Melinda is striving to achieve from before Melinda was born.
    All that progressive Catholics achieve by staying in the R.C. church is giving it LEGITIMACY which it DOESN'T DESERVE!

  4. George Denniston MD Reply

    December 10, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    Melinda Gates is heroically standing up to the Catholic Church on the issue of a man and woman's right to determine the size of their family. The church is not going to be happy with this. The Church has obtained virtually all of its priests and nuns through the medium of compulsory pregnancy – women having more children than they want or can handle, and giving them to the Church.
    Melinda Gates has committed to providing African women with effective birth control.
    How ironic that her husband is involved in what will shortly be considered the greatest scandal in American medical history, by permitting his Foundation to give large sums of money to remove half of the skin of the penises of hundreds of thousands of African men in a vain effort to slow the AIDS epidemic. Circumcision can at best (and this is unlikely) only delay the acquisition of AIDS; condoms can prevent it.

  5. Adina Dumitrescu Reply

    March 10, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    I think that, even if you're religious, you can still have your own point of view on a subject without having to drag the entire church into it.

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