Melinda Gates: There’s ‘no controversy’ around birth control, but Catholic officials disagree

ANTHONY BOLANTE REUTERS Melinda Gates speaks to the media while her husband, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates (L) and his father … Continued



Melinda Gates speaks to the media while her husband, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates (L) and his father William H. Gates Sr. listen during a tour of the new visitor center at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation campus in Seattle, Washington February 1, 2012.

Can Melinda Gates move contraception beyond controversy?

After a 2012 news cycle dominated by debates in the United States over women’s reproductive lives –from the HHS showdown with the Catholic bishops to Susan G. Komen’s conflict with Planned Parenthood to claims about a “war on women”--the philanthropist and co-founder, along with her husband, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is hosting an international family planning conference in London this week. And she’s proclaiming “there is no controversy in empowering women to decide if and when to have a child.”

Gates hopes to use the summit to put contraception back on the global development agenda in an effort to raise $4 billion for family planning initiatives in the developing world, “giving 120 million more women access to contraceptives by 2020.”

Working to re-frame the conversation on family planning, the foundation launched, a Web site asserting that “contraceptives are not controversial”and encouraging people to share stories about how birth control has changed their life.

In an April TED talk, the Catholic-school educated Dallas native said that growing up, she questioned whether, as her church teaches, “birth control is really a sin.” Gates said that it is her Catholic commitment to social justice that drives her work for the foundation today, including her new family planning initiative. She also has been emphasizing areas of relative consensus on birth control, as in her TED talk:

Acknowledging cases of family planning policies gone wrong, such as the mass sterilization of hundreds of thousands of indigenous Peruvian women — and steering clear, the Seattle Times noted, of any talk of “overpopulation,” the mother of three has been working overtime in recent months to point the global discussion around family planning away from third-rail topics.

“We’re not talking about abortion,” Gates said in her talk. “We’re not talking about population control. What I’m talking about is giving women the power to save their lives, to save their children’s lives and to give their families the best possible future.”

Giving women, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and in Southeast Asia, access to contraception, Gates contends, will save millions of lives by reducing maternal and infant mortality, improving child health, lowering abortion rates, and “helping countries reach their development goals.”

(Watch Gates’ full TED talk below.)

But when certain methods of birth control are condemned, particularly by religious conservatives, as abortifacients, and deep skepticism of international efforts to impact reproductive choices persist, can Gates navigate a morally and cultural complex terrain to make an international contraception effort truly non-controversial?

One group may show Gates the way. Among the participants in Wednesday’s conference is the Jesuit school Georgetown University’s Institute for Reproductive Health, which, funded primarily by USAID, researches and advocates for “Fertility Awareness Methods.’ It’s an approach to avoiding pregnancy that is in line with Catholic teaching, yet is also used by couples who are not Catholic but prefer a more natural approach.

Such approaches include, for example, the Standard Days Method, developed by Georgetown, that “identifies a fixed fertile window” during a woman’s menstrual cycle and asks her to avoid unprotected sex on those days.

Institute director Victoria Jennings occupies a sometimes-tense space between natural methods embraced by religious conservatives, and a family planning world that can see natural approaches as ineffective. Her organization’s approach is non-religious –no theology required– but Jennings can have a tough sell when pitching Fertility Awareness Methods to the family planning world. She also anticipates push-back from religious conservatives to the conference’s goal of bringing tens of millions of women access to contraceptives.

“Because of the traditional conflict that has developed between the Catholic Church and other family planning and reproductive health organizations around the world, [Fertility Awareness Methods] are sometimes are viewed with some doubt and suspicion,” Jennings says. She adds that she sees participation in the conference as an opportunity “to reach new people in a way that really does work.”

In the family planning world, Jennings says, “there certainly is the perception… that a number of faith-based organizations that would otherwise be in a position to promote family planning as a social good and as a benefit to the family have in fact done just the opposite. . . .They tend to be some of the more conservative groups who are very much concerned about the preservation of traditional family values and see the whole idea of family planning as being very challenging to that.”

On the other hand, adds Jennings “there are others who are concerned about specific methods of family planning, perceiving them, generally inaccurately, to be in some way linked to abortion. The very unfortunate linkage of family planning and abortion has exacerbated the situation with some of the conservative, faith-based perspectives.”

Jennings promotes Fertility Awareness Method as a hormone-free approach that often brings women in developing countries to family planning for the first time. “It’s something that she doesn’t have to necessarily even engage with a health care provider around. This is something that is just something that is natural for her body.” Jennings also says that like condoms and pills, natural approaches “need to be used correctly” but calls them “very effective methods.”

As she approaches the conference Wednesday, Jennings sees an opportunity to bring an often-underground view to the family planning universe: “We know we need all hands on deck to do this. There are a variety of approaches and they need to be respected.”

Still, a $4 billion international family planning effort that includes methods that the the Catholic Church and conservative Christian churches find objectionable is likely to be viewed critically among those religious people and institutions. According to the Dallas Morning News, Bishop Kevin Farrell, who leads the Texas diocese in which Gates was raised, issued a statement in apparent response to the philanthropist’s framing of the initiative as a Catholic social justice issue, insisting “every Catholic has a serious responsibility to inform themselves about [church] teaching and to form their consciences in its light.” But Gates isn’t backing down from religious arguments either.

In her TED talk, Gates commented:

“Sex is absolutely sacred and it’s sacred in Germany and it’s sacred in the United States and it’s sacred in France and in so many places around the world. And the fact that 98 percent of women in my country who are sexually experienced say they use birth control doesn’t make sex any less sacred, it just means that they’re getting to make choices about their lives.”

Gates added: “I think in that choice, we’re also honoring the sacredness of the family and the sacredness of the mother’s life and the children’s lives by saving their lives. And to me, that’s incredibly sacred too.”

Elizabeth Tenety
Written by

  • Rockerbabe

    Since all of the major and not so major religions of the world are male dominated, women often seem to not stand a chance. These men and their religions have no clue as to what women want, need and will tolerate.

    These men are so hell-bent on controlling the lives of women, that they forget that there is another male somewhere in a woman’s live and it is he who often controls a lot of what goes on with these women. Controlling a woman’s fertility means controlling her life and often in ways, she does not want or appreciate. But these old fools continue their unwanted intrusion into the lives of women. At least Mrs. Gates is making an attempt to help improve the ives of women on their terms.

  • ChoKum

    American bishops and archbishops should be required to register as agents of a foreign country!

  • getsmarty

    If Melinda Gates weren’t married to Bill Gates, her opinion on birth control would be as irrelevant as it really is. (Melinda, you outlaw Catholic–you are just soooo cool!)

    Due to their wealth, Melinda and Bill Gates think they can play god (what fools). And through their foundation, they can–for a while.

    But soon enough, like the rest of us, they will die and face their Maker. (And their foundation will also falter.)

    They will then have to answer for the egotistical arrogance which has led them to violate the First Commandment–“I am the Lord your God, thou shalt not
    place false gods before Me.”

    In the end, justice and truth will prevail–not Melinda (if I weren’t married to
    Bill, no one would know me) Gates.

    The Gates will eventually be closed.

  • getsmarty

    William Penn established Religious tolerance in America when he founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682.

    You are 330 light years behind the times.

  • DavidJ9

    But the Bishops are agents of a foreign country, they are not merely members of a religion.

    Remember that they made a deal with Mussolini.

  • Rongoklunk

    The Vatican wants more and more Catholic babies to be born, so that it can continue to be in business. No Catholics = no Vatican. Survival is the number one priority in an increasingly secular world. But they’re being pushed aside by a wise woman who has the priorities right. Free condoms for all. Women to be in control of their own lives, and women to determine how many children they should have. Way to go Mrs Gates.

  • Rongoklunk

    How can you be so sure of something that defies commonsense? How can you be so sure of something for which there’s not a scrap of evidence? How can you be so sure of something that most scientists call “wishful thinking”? How can you be so sure of an opinion that one needs to be indoctrinated in – in order to believe it as an adult?

    How can you be so sure of an anthropomorphic, personal God which Einstein has called childish, even naive? As far as we know there are no gods and never were any. The 3500 Gods of the ancients are mythical, and that includes Allah, Vishnu and your un-named generic God. They’re all mythical. That’s why you’ve never seen one, and never will.

  • colowww

    Poor people, especially poor women and children suffer the effects of the global overpopulation problem the most. Its about time concern about the ongoing population explosion became fashionable again. Way overdue. Lets help poor people by getting them better access to family planning!

  • colowww

    Something anti-contraception conservatives need to understand is. International family planning is an investment in national security, because rapid population growth in poor countries increases political instability and therefor the likely hood of wars. Look it up, the most unstable countries in the world also have rapidly growing populations.

  • 4blazek

    Religion again is ALL about money vis a vie all of the TV evangelicals ranting and raving all the way to their banks…

  • edismae

    Well, since their previous “helping” initiatives like vaccinations and malaria control have, no doubt, led to increased people trying to survive with limited supplies of food, leading to starvation and wars, it’s a good sign that they have decided – finally – to get the cart before the horse.

    Too many children make you poor…I read that line in a People magazine story about a southeast Asian country’s head of population control. initiative in the 70s. True then, true now.

    When you have a finite amount of arable land and contraception is not practiced, the results are famine and starvation.

    Hope Bob Geldolf and George Clooney and Mia Farrow catch on.

  • sargentnt

    Melinda, this is going to make you very popular as your approach is in line with the thinking of our so-called “modern world”. However you are making a fundamental mistake because the Catholic Church is built on obedience to Christ and self-discipline, whereas you are promoting self-indulgence. History is on the Churches side as self-indulgence is neither healthy nor good, which is why the Church calls it “sin”!

  • Catken1

    If you think not wanting to bear children over and over from the age of 12 until you die of it is “self-indulgence”, I wish you that fate in a future life. Or in your dreams.
    The reality of women in the Third World is not a hedonistic cycle of parties and promiscuous sex, it really isn’t.

  • Catken1

    Ah, yes, justice and truth, like that fourteen-year-old girl in an article nearby on the webpage, who was sold into marriage young and lost her baby and nearly her own life because she was starving? The justice and truth that keeps young girls bearing and bearing and bearing until they die of it, with no concern for the health of their babies, their families, or their environment, with no concern for how their families or their land can support so many babies?

    Yes, how egotistical and arrogant of Ms. Gates, to try to care for human female lives and ensure that they are not broken through constant pregnancy, when your god has deemed women to be worthless, subhuman incubators to be used and thrown out. How awful of her, to care for the health and well-being of mothers, children, and their families, instead of valuing only quantity of breeding production and never paying attention to actual quality of life.

  • sargentnt

    So the correct response to give those same twelve year olds free and open access to contraceptives? Clearly that is what Melinda thinks, but I see it as an assault on the dignity of each and every woman and on the human race! As human beings we have to accept responsibility for our actions and, if we choose to go down the road of self-indulgence then we have to accept the consequences. This means we have to choose between self-indulgence and self-discipline, just as in so many other areas of life. A person who chooses to indulge in over eating will end up obese. The person who chooses to avoid school will live in poverty and so on. Where the money has to go is into education! What sort of message are we sending our youth if we opt for free contraceptives in every corner store?? It might appear to be “the solution” but I believe it will only make a bad situation worse! It is also interesting to note the Catholic Church is growing throughout the world, but the growth is not in the first world; – but rather in Asia and Africa; – so maybe these third world countries can give us some lessons in what is right and what is wrong? The first world is clearly turning away from the Christian Faith and we are clearly giving a very high priority to self-indulgence; – particularly in the areas of sex and drugs. Melinda would be wise to put her funds, not into the provision of contraceptives, but rather into education, and into birth control methods that are endorsed by her Catholic Faith.

  • scaffalot

    They should register as sex offenders.

  • Catken1

    “So the correct response to give those same twelve year olds free and open access to contraceptives?”

    No, it’s to keep them from being married off in the first place, and to ensure that when they ARE old enough to marry, they DO have free and open access to contraceptives so that they can control the number of children they bear so that none of those children starve for lack of food, or have to be sold into marriage as children in order to feed the rest of the family.

    But if a twelve-year-old has already been sold into marriage, and we can’t get her out, contraceptives are FAR better than repeated pregnancies at her age, particularly when SHE IS STARVING already.

    As for condemning her “self-indulgence”, do you honestly think she has a choice? Can she say no to her husband, do you think, or refuse to bear the children he impregnates her with?

    As for the choice between “self-indulgence” and “self-discipline” for every woman who DOES have a choice, you do realize there is a grey area between “lifelong celibacy” and “rampant promiscuity”? You do realize that a married woman can reasonably want a normal marital sex life without wanting to bear more children than her body or family can support, and that this is not selfishness, self-indulgence, nor promiscuity, but simple human tool use?

    And you also realize that practically, you are never going to convince everyone on Earth to restrict their sexual activity ONLY to those times they want to breed, in a world where population questions, the expense of rearing children (who, while always a gift, were once a massive economic asset and are now a massive economic cost), and the infant survival rate now make it unlikely for most families to be able to care for more than two or three children?

    Your argument is like saying, “Selfish, self-indulgent people who eat too much get fat. Therefore, we should implement a policy of requiring everyone to eat only tofu, salad greens and water twice a day, and condemning sternly as a selfish gl

  • Joey2W

    “Fertility Awareness Methods” only work when the male partner is also willing to abstain from sex during a significant part of the month. In many of these situations, where the woman is viewed as property and additional children are viewed as proof of virility, these kinds of “methods” are doomed to failure.

  • amelia45

    From above: “One group may show Gates the way. Among the participants in Wednesday’s conference is the Jesuit school Georgetown University’s Institute for Reproductive Health, which, funded primarily by USAID, researches and advocates for “Fertility Awareness Methods.’ It’s an approach to avoiding pregnancy that is in line with Catholic teaching, yet is also used by couples who are not Catholic but prefer a more natural approach.”

    There is really good information at the Institute for Reproductive Health about natural forms of birth control. However, there are two real problems with most of them.

    Natural family planning methods will work for couples who have the training and sometimes the tools to monitor women’s fertility cycles AND whose husbands will cooperate. In sub-Sahara Africa and in India, the culture does not empower women to say “not tonight, honey.” So these methods are only successful for millions of women in those cultures if hubby will go along schedule or if hubby will use a condom on “unsafe” days. And, of course, using a condom is not acceptable to the Catholic Church.

    There is something ironic about the “natural” forms of birth control the Catholic Church will approve and the drive to prove them and make them “safe.” The point of using contraceptives is for a couple to have sex without the chance of pregnancy. The “safer” they make natural forms of birth control the less chance there is of pregnancy – and the Church argument against artificial contraceptives in the first place is that they are too good at separating sex and pregnancy.

    Sin is in the intention to sin. If couples use natural family planning methods to be able to enjoy sex while avoiding pregnancy – they might as well take the pill or use condoms or use any other “artificial” methods of contraception. It doesn’t make any difference. And, the “safer”, the more improved is the design and practice of natural family planning, the clearer is the intent to have sex and avoid pregnan

  • dcrswm

    Hey Marty, how many billions of your own dollars have you put towards helping other people? Any? Yet you cliam your morality over hers, curious to say the least.

  • dcrswm

    Marty….you do know a lightyear is a measurement of distance….not time right?

  • mrbhuis

    Seriously?! Many men in these cultures do not respect women so they will be supremely selfish and self-indulgent and the women and babies will pay the price.

    Go spend some time in these areas and maybe you will get a dose of God-given reality!


    amelia45, the real world does not think in the way you or Gorgeton U. does on sexual intercourse. Thoes against birth control, what is their answer when earth cannot feed all humans?


    sargentnt, define sin. What power does a human have to make a rule that if violated is sin? History does not give the RCC a pure clean record. God and time are on the side of truth.

  • Sunpanther

    I wonder what the people pushing a warmed-over rhythm method are telling women from societies so particarchial that they don’t have the power to say “no”? Aside from the fact, of course, that these methods don’t work, have never worked, never will work, and are not intended to actually work.

    Melinda Gates is on the right track, but she shouldn’t be including these frauds in the conference.

  • sargentnt

    The problem here is one;s view of the world and one’s relationship with one’s creator. Melinda professes to be a Catholic and my comments are in response to that profession of Faith. Clearly, if individuals do not have that Faith then they will obviously address this “birth control”: issue from a different perspecive.

    Your post draws highlights this different perspective as you imply sin is defined by man, whereas sin is defined by God; – which is exactly the reason Catholics cannot subscribe to solutions put forward based on “human wisdom”! How do we know it is defined by God? Because Scripture teachers it, the Catholic Church teaches it, and Tradition teaches it, – as do the commandments.

    God’s ways are not our ways; – and if you need any proof of that truth then you only have to look at the Passion and Death of Christ, and his Teachings. Christ taught self-denial, Christ taught humility, Christ taught obedience to the Will of the Father; – all teachings that are rejected by our Modern World; – which fails to understand what Love is, and what it involves.

    Love involves putting the will of the one loved ahead of ones own will (self-discipline, self-denial, self-sacrifice) whereas the world’s view of love is to give first place to ones own will and ones own desires….(self-indulgence)… but… the World is Wrong!!

    This is why people of Faith cannot argue with people without Faith; – nor can they condemn them or judge them, in fact we must respect them as Faith is a gift, a gift from God! The only reason I posted a response to Melinda was because of her profession as a Catholic, as no Catholic can advocate practices or teachings that are contrary to the Will of God / the teachings of his Church.

    As creatures we have no right to argue with our Creator, just as the pot does not argue with the potter! God wisdom has decreed that human intimacy opens the way to conception; and we have no right to interfere with that fact; – which takes us right back to the issue of

  • BayouRod

    We tried this once. It was called Planned Parenthood and it was started to reduce the black population, but the government overcame them by paying black women to have more babies, so it turned into an abortion mill for white women.

  • Catken1

    “How do we know it is defined by God? Because Scripture teachers it, the Catholic Church teaches it, and Tradition teaches it, – as do the commandments. ”

    Ah, yes. Sin is defined by God. How do we know this? Because our church and holy book say so! How do we know they’re right? Because God says so!

    Classic circular reasoning.

    “God wisdom has decreed that human intimacy opens the way to conception; and we have no right to interfere with that fact;”

    God wisdom decreed that most children would die before they reached adulthood through diseases. Have we no right to interfere with that fact through vaccinations?

    God wisdom decreed that I should be so myopic I am nearly blind without my glasses. Have I no right to interfere with that fact through the use of glasses?

    God wisdom decreed that we should all be born naked – have we any right to interfere with that fact through wearing clothes?

    If indeed your God created us, and you have yet to offer any sensible evidence that he did, or indeed that he wills what you say he wills, then God created us with brains and the sense to create and use tools. Did he not intend for us to use them to make our lives better?

    “which takes us right back to the issue of self-indulgence versus self-discipline; – and the central issue of Love ”

    Except for women, because any effort by a woman to be something other than a perpetual virgin or a perpetual incubating machine, to be used to breed and breed babies without thought or concern for her health or for her body’s or family’s ability to support said children, until she breaks and can be thrown out like the worn-out piece of machinery she is, is pure “self-indulgence.”

    I love my husband. Our sex life strengthens our marriage, which is good for both of us and for our child. I refuse to apologize for that, or to call it “self-indulgence.” It is a healthy part of my adult life.

    Practically speaking, how would you care for all the extra children that would be produced by women who follow your path? Are yo

  • sargentnt

    As I said; – This is an issue of ones view of the world and ones relationship with ones Creator! Like Melinda I believe in the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Faith; – In its entirety!

  • Catken1

    Ah, yes, conspiracy theories.

    I’m sure you preferred the past, when lots of families were mired in poverty because they couldn’t care for all their kids, and when lots of kids grew up without a mother because she was dead in childbirth or from the costs of repeated pregnancies. So much easier to maintain the patriarchal power base when women’s lives are shorter and dedicated to brood mare service, and when both women and working-class men haven’t got enough economic resources to fight back because they’re struggling too hard to put enough food on the table for all their kids.

  • Catken1

    If you want to believe that God doesn’t want women to be anything but brood mares, that’s fine, as long as you (or your wife, if you’re male) agree to that as consenting adults.

    But do not use the civil law to push your faith on others. And remember that arguing to others “You should have blind unquestioning faith in my beliefs, because God says so, and I know God says so because I have blind unquestioning faith” is not terribly convincing to anyone who does not already have blind unquestioning faith.

    And please tell me, how does a “relationship with your Creator” help parents feed all those extra children, or educate them? Or does your Creator not particularly care if kids starve to death or live lives of grinding, uneducated, hopeless poverty, once they’ve served their purpose of punishing their mothers for the “self-indulgence” of a marital sex life?

  • Osasco

    Imagine how many babies will not even have a chance to be born and become someone! Who are we to decide who can be born and who should die even before birth? People who think it is OK to control life with pills are inorant and selfish.

  • Osasco

    Who are we to decide who will be born or die? Are you Ceasar from the Roman Empire?

  • Osasco

    Earth cannot feed a bunch of people who eat 10x more what is needed and polute with their SUVs loke crazy.

  • Osasco

    I think I will throw up. What a selfish move.

  • Catken1

    Yeah! Imagine all those babies denied the chance to be born to a mother whose body doesn’t have enough food to sustain the pregnancy, into a starving family, with no resources for food and medication and education! How dare we deny them the chance to live a short, sickly, starving life, in a depleted environment that can’t sustain the population that chokes it?

    How ignorant and selfish, to want all children to have enough food, enough care, enough attention, even an education with which to make a better life. Nope, quantity, quantity, quantity! is the only moral cry, with no concern ever allowed for the quality of those poor little starving lives.

  • Catken1

    “Who are we to decide who will be born or die? Are you Ceasar from the Roman Empire?”

    I’m the person whose body would be used by the new life, the person who would be doing the work to make new life, the person who would be sustaining that new life with my energy and providing for it before and after birth with my work and resources.

    I am a human woman, not an incubating machine. I am not here solely to pop out baby after baby until I die of it. I have other purposes, and I have enough care for my parenting to ensure that those children I DO bear should have a good life.

    And TTWSY, it is a simple fact that women do live longer and healthier lives these days than in the old days when childbearing was unrestricted and most women spent their adult lives in a state of constant pregnancy. You go on and on about the risks of the pill, but the risks of continual childbearing are still FAR higher.