The billionaire philanthropist Melinda Gates, a practicing Catholic, has thrown down the gauntlet to the Vatican and vowed to dedicate the rest of her life to improving access to contraception across the globe.
Gates, who with her husband, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is one of the world’s biggest players on development issues, predicted that women in Africa and Asia would soon be “voting with their feet,” as women in the West have done, and would ignore the church’s ban on artificial birth control.
Gates, who was a speaker at the London Summit on Family Planning organized by her foundation in conjunction with the UK government and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), said that since she announced her new direction a few weeks ago, she had been inundated with messages of support from Catholic women, including nuns.
“A church is made up of its members, and one of the things this campaign might do is help women speak out,” she said. “I’ve had thousands of women come on to Web sites and say: ‘I’m a Catholic, but I believe in contraception.’ It’s going to be women voting with their feet.”
Gates said that in the West, the bishops said one thing, but ordinary Catholics did another.
“In my country, 82 percent of Catholics say contraception is morally acceptable,” she said. “So let the women in Africa decide. The choice is up to them.”
She said, though, that she had agonized over whether to speak out in defiance of the church hierarchy.
“Of course, I wrestled with this,” she said. “As a Catholic, I believe in this religion, there are amazing things about this religion, amazing moral teachings that I do believe in, but I also have to think about how we keep women alive. I believe in not letting women die, I believe in not letting babies die, and to me, that’s more important than arguing about what method of contraception [is right].”
Being a woman and a mother were at the heart of her decision to focus on family planning, said Gates, who has three children aged 16, 13 and 10.
“It would have been nice to stay as a private citizen, but part of the reason why I’m so public is that it does take a woman to speak out about these issues,” she said. “Why have women not been at the heart of the global health agenda? It’s because we’ve not had enough women speaking out. We need to give a voice to women all over the planet. This will be my life’s work.”
Wednesday’s conference, which brought together 250 delegates from around the world, including Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, Burkina Faso first lady Chantal Compaore and Bangladeshi Minister of Health A.F.M. Ruhal Haque, was the launch of what the Gates Foundation is billing “a groundbreaking effort to make affordable, lifesaving contraceptive information, services and supplies available to an additional 120 million girls and women in the world’s poorest countries by 2020.”
Reports said that the foundation would spend between US$560 million and US$1 billion on the effort over the next eight years — and the hope is that others will raise the fund to more than US$4 billion. The UK government is pledging to double its efforts on family planning, up from its current ￡90 million (US$140.1 million) a year to ￡180 million a year.
In an interview, Melinda Gates said the moment had now come to push contraception back to the top of the development agenda.