Recently, three members of Congress penned a commentary for Roll Call detailing their November trip to Cambodia to observe U.S.-funded maternal and child health programs in action. In reading the commentary by Representatives Crenshaw, Granger, and Quigley, it was deeply disappointing to see the absence of any reference to the critical role played by expanded access to family planning services in achieving healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies. This is essential to reducing maternal and child deaths and to empowering women.
The commentary’s failure to explicitly mention the importance of family planning or birth spacing is puzzling, especially since it plays a key role in the U.S. government’s investments in maternal and child health in Cambodia. Presumably, about $5 million of the $14 million in U.S. assistance to Cambodia for “maternal and neonatal health” cited in the last paragraph of their commentary comes out of the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) family planning and reproductive health budget.
Family planning and reproductive health play an important role in the overall health of mothers and families throughout the developing world. In June of this year, the U.S. government announced a major new global health initiative on ending preventable child and maternal deaths, complementing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), and Feed the Future. As part of the initiative, USAID has identified and shifted its focus to 24 countries, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, that account for 70 percent of maternal and child deaths.
According to USAID estimates, scaling up voluntary family planning services in these 24 priority countries could avert 7 million child deaths and 450,000 maternal deaths between 2013 and 2020 by preventing unintended and high-risk pregnancies. The number of deaths averted by increased use of family planning would represent nearly half (47 percent) of the initiative’s goal for children’s lives saved and over three-quarters of its goal for women’s lives saved by 2020.
An estimated 225 million women in developing countries would like to postpone childbearing, space births, or avoid future pregnancies, but lack effective, modern contraceptives. In Cambodia, an estimated 17 percent of women of reproductive age (15-49) have an unmet need for family planning.
The benefits of family planning for Cambodian women must have been readily apparent to the members of Congress during their travels around the country and in their conversations with women and health clinic staff. This oversight represents a major missed opportunity to educate their colleagues and Roll Call readers on one of the highest impact maternal and child health interventions around.