11/07/2012 07:59 BST | Updated 09/09/2012 06:12 BST

Why Do Contraceptives Save Lives?

Everyone knows that contraceptives are good at preventing pregnancies - but now there's a major global summit in London looking at how contraceptives can save lives. How does that work?

Some 1,292 organizations in 177 countries - including UCGHR - have signed a declaration published in the Financial Times under the heading "Family Planning Saves Lives".

The London summit, prominently supported by Melinda Gates and the UK Government is spearheading a global effort to make contraceptives more widely available at less cost to women around the world.

But the connections between contraceptive access and saving lives may not be so clear, even in some of the media coverage around at the moment. Let's look at the numbers.

In reality, every single woman who gets pregnant takes a risk. There are lots of ways of viewing the risks, but let's look at the ultimate bad outcome - women who die as a result of being pregnant. According to the United Nations, women who get pregnant in the UK face a 0.01% risk of dying as a result. This is a small, but not negligible, risk. Interestingly, in the USA, where there is no national health service, the risk is nearly twice as high.

However, like many other risks, the chances of bad outcomes increase with poverty - along with poorer access to good health care and other disadvantages. In a few countries, the risk of a woman dying due to a pregnancy is as high as 1%, and in many countries it exceeds 0.5%. So if 100 pregnant women turn up to a clinic in, for example, Somalia, there is every chance that one of them will die as a result of her pregnancy. These are astonishingly high figures, unacceptable in the 21st century. All sorts of actions like better hospitals, emergency transport and simply poverty reduction are needed to solve these problems. But why contraceptives?

The risks that I'm talking about here occur per pregnancy. Therefore it's a matter of very simple maths to see that if a woman gets pregnant less often in her lifetime, then she is less likely to die as a result of pregnancy. That's why contraceptives save lives.

There are other arguments too - children grow up healthier if there are bigger age gaps between siblings; unwanted pregnancies may lead to dangerous abortions, and so on. But the simple fact is that contraceptives do indeed save lives, and that's why the world needs them to be more widely available, cheaper, and accessible via user-friendly services.