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How Birth Control Could Save Lives

Relatively simple health programs can make a big difference to mothers and children.

By Francie Diep


(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Birth control can save a lot of lives. In fact, providing contraception to 90 percent of those in need around the world would ultimately save the lives of 67,000 women and 440,000 infants over the next year, according to an analysis published last week in the journal Lancet. That’s in part because doing so would prevent unwanted, high-risk pregnancies and unsafe abortions, along with 564,000 stillbirths and almost 28 million unwanted live births undergone every year.

The analysis underscores the big difference that relatively simple health programs can make. Beyond contraception, providing 90 percent of the planet with World Bank-recommended women’s and children’s health measures — such as folic acid supplements for women planning to get pregnant, medicines for kids with diarrhea and other infectious diseases, and a skilled attendant for every birth — would save the lives of an additional 82,000 women and 2.5 million children, and prevent 285,000 stillbirths annually, according to the Lancet analysis, which was conducted by a team of public health researchers from the United States and the World Health Organization in Switzerland. Most of the recommended programs could be covered by community clinics and primary-care doctors; only a few require hospitalization.

Of all the recommended measures the research team analyzed, contraception — which a low-tech clinic is able to provide — could save the most lives. Other effective programs included treating severe malnutrition, making basic emergency services available for every birth, and providing better care for prematurely born babies.

Although any one of these programs are relatively inexpensive, getting all of them to mothers and kids worldwide would still be pricey—$27 billion every year, according to the researchers. Still, the payback would be worth it, the authors write: For every $1 governments and other organizations spend on basic mother-and-child health care in low- and middle-income countries, they ultimately get back $8.70 back in the form of more healthy, productive citizens.