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The Politics of Women's Health

Global Access to Birth Control

Despite the advances that have been made in contraception over the past fifty years, an estimated 150 million women worldwide cannot get the birth control they desire.  In many parts of the world most young women become mothers before they are 20 years old. A woman who bears children at a younger age tends to have more children over all, is less able to care for them, and is more likely to suffer ill health.  Having access to safe, appropriate family planning methods and safe abortion saves womenís lives.  It can prevent dangers from pregnancies that are:

  • Too Soon:
    Women under the age of seventeen are more likely to die or be injured in childbirth because their bodies are not fully grown. Their babies have a greater chance of dying in the first year.

  • Too Late:
    Older women face more danger in child bearing if they have other health problems or have had many children.

  • Too Close: 
    A womanís body needs time to heal between pregnancies.

  • Too Many: 
    A woman with more than four children has a greater risk of death after childbirth from bleeding and other causes.

By delaying the age and frequency at which a young woman has children, she has a greater opportunity to finish school and find work that will provide her with a viable income.  Women with fewer children generally have fewer health problems and healthier children. Some family planning methods not only prevent pregnancy, but also have the benefit of preventing the spread of some sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV/AIDS.

Barriers to access to family planning include lack of knowledge about contraception, limited choices, high costs, limited supplies, distance to services, and cultural or personal objections. In many places the right of a woman to choose when and how many children she has is seen as someone elseís decision or right.  There may be social expectations that a woman will have many children to increase the prestige of herself, her partner, or her partnerís family, regardless of the danger to her own health.  In other cases, women are pressured or even forced to continue to have children in order to have a child of the desired sex, usually male.  Religious or political groups may impose their moral or ethical beliefs on communities, denying women access to family planning services or punishing them if they do gain access. 

Last revised: May 2012

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