Once, in a Bible study I was involved with, we women got chatting, and one lady (as we were discussing poverty in Haiti) said, “If we could just get those women to stop having so many kids…” [drawn-out sigh.] My reply was that we didn’t need to stop women from having babies; we needed to help educate women.
For years, organizations like the World Health Organization have tried to distribute artificial birth control in the developing world. The thinking here is that if families have fewer children, there will be more opportunities for the health and welfare of the children who are born. Of course, this mentality fails on several counts. First, it overlooks religious and cultural values in many places around the world where large families are desired, and where artificial birth control is considered sinful. Second, even the World Health Organization notes that many forms of artificial birth control are known carcinogens. Finally, in many developing countries, the simplest of health care is out-of-reach both financially and geographically. That is, a family that cannot afford netting treated to ward off mosquitoes carrying malaria or who has to walk days to reach a clinic are certainly not going to be able to utilize artificial birth control with any regularity – which means it won’t work.
What will work? The same ideal that underlies sound economic principles: partnering with and empowering the poor.
Rather than trying to secure funds for condoms, hormonal contraception, clinics, and medical personnel to run the clinics, the Missionaries of Charity (the religious order founded by Mother Teresa) simply taught the people Natural Family Planning. For those unfamiliar with Natural Family Planning, it is a means by which a woman observes the naturally occurring signs in her body to know when she is fertile and when she is not. If a couple wishes to avoid pregnancy, they abstain from sex during the week she is fertile. If they wish to achieve pregnancy, they take advantage of her fertile time.
Rather than a solution that requires that the poor have continued access to medical clinics and health care personnel, and the continued source of funding that would be required to ship and distribute condoms and other devices, the sisters simply empowered poor Hindus, Christians, and Muslims with the knowledge of how their bodies work, a knowledge that would serve them their whole reproductive lives.
The poor are not stupid; they are poor. By teaching men and women simple biological facts about fertility, these families are able to plan their families without risking the woman’s health, relying on expensive medication, or the need for consistent care from medical professionals. This type of fertility education is inexpensive, healthy, respects religious and cultural values, and it works.
In India…where the poor learned NFP [Natural Family Planning] and relied on abstinence during the fertile phase, a study of 19,483 poor women had a pregnancy rate of less than 1%.
NFP has also had great success in China. The effectiveness rate in couples using NFP to avoid pregnancy has remained at about 99%. In this country where the one-child policy is strictly enforced, use of NFP has also lowered the abortion rate in some communities. In a study comparing two similar communities, one in which NFP is widely practiced, and one in which the IUD is widely used, the IUD community had seven times the abortion rate as the NFP community (though they had been statistically similar prior to the introduction of NFP).4 Furthermore, the simple use of the Billing’s Ovulation Method allowed 14,524 out of 45,280 (32.1%) previously infertile couples achieve a pregnancy.
By respecting the values of families in the developing world and partnering with them through education, we empower them to care for themselves and their families. That is prudential moral and economic thought.