The international development community is celebrating a major achievement that will have a concrete impact on humanity. On 11 July the UK Government and Bill and Melinda Gates, with the support of the United Nations Population Fund and world governments made history at the London Family Planning Summit. The agreement they reached exceeded all expectations for the funds that would be generated to fund family planning in the developing world, allowing 120 more million women their right to decide on the number, timing and spacing of their children by 2020. This is a remarkable gesture in times of global austerity, and will fulfil the unmet need of over half the women in the world who currently lack access to family planning. Few political commitments can ever have stood to alleviate such a large proportion of a single global challenge.
But in marvelling at how impressive this gesture is in overall terms, we also risk failing to notice one of the equally momentous consequences it will have: helping to avoid 50 million abortions between now and 2020. 50 million difficult, sad and often tragic circumstances; 50 million moral dilemmas; 50 million costly and testing medical interventions for women that will not need to take place. In light of this, it would be logical to expect that anyone wanting to reduce abortion levels should be celebrating. But why is this not the case?
The opposition to abortion has always been voluble, and it is a cause that manages to attract (undue) populist support - usually with a mixture of emotional blackmail, pseudo-scientific findings and inherent religious indoctrination. It preys on people who are vulnerable to all of the above and have not fully considered or felt what the reality of pregnancy entails for a women. And whilst this is a stance that disrespects women's autonomy and their right to decide on their own bodies, it is a stance that pretends to be founded upon an understandable - albeit falsified - moral principle: the desire to prevent suffering and protect human dignity and the overly simplistic concept of 'life.'
In the aftermath of the summit we are baffled to see that the people who object to abortion seem also to be those who object to the London Summit and the greatest single gesture in recent history to reduce abortion. Despite wanting to prevent suffering and protect human dignity, a vocal minority with a seeming laudable principle view it as wrong to enable women in the developing world to prevent themselves from becoming pregnant, whether this be by using condoms, pills or any other means of modern family planning. Methods that we have long taken for granted in Europe, but which they believe now should not be available in developing countries.
The forces against modern family planning are not as humane and rights-based as they pretend to be. Under the guise of respecting tradition and the overly simplistic concept of 'life' their thinking seems to stem from misogynistic, patriarchal and archaic norms that have been seeking to subjugate women since before concepts such as gender equality and family planning existed. Structures that see women's reproduction as a reason for them to be enslaved, and which actively discriminate against anyone who chooses not to live their life in a (heterosexual) 'traditional' marriage.
In reality no-one is "pro-abortion," but rather we, along with the mainstream populace of the vast majority of the developing world, are "pro the right to abortion." Each woman should be allowed and empowered to make her own decision as to whether she continues her pregnancy - according to her health, her morals, her religion, her resources and all the other circumstances she finds herself in. And at the moment when she makes this decision the only thing anyone else can do should be to offer her unbiased support in whatever decision she takes.
London marks a milestone for the development community and family planning, but the real battle to tackle the entrenched political animosity towards women enjoying their reproductive health and rights in the developing world is only just beginning. Family planning is not the panacea for all the challenges facing the development community, but it is an indispensable ingredient in allowing all countries the opportunity to enjoy the development that we have had.
And once we have made family planning accessible and acceptable we can use this momentum to remove the other barriers to development that remain. Barriers that continue to hamper millions of women and their societies' development, like child marriage, unsafe abortion and female genital mutilation. Once the Olympics have come and gone, we hope that this will be the truly ground-breaking legacy associated with London in 2012.
This article was co-authored by Neil Datta, Secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development.