Anita Wadhwani, [email protected]
Originally published in The Tennessean
Philanthropist Melinda Gates said she never imagined growing up in a devout Catholic household in Dallas that she would one day lead a global effort to promote family planning and contraceptives in the developing world.
"I wrestled with my faith," said Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, speaking in front of a Belmont University audience. "I absolutely needed to talk with my parents, my children. I wrestled with my own use of contraception, about which I am very public."
But it was ultimately her faith — including the Catholic Church's longstanding commitment to aiding people in poverty — and being a firsthand witness to the hardships of mothers as she traveled in Africa and Asia with her then-fiance Bill Gates that led her to join an effort to address the need for women to decide when and whether to have children.
The Gates' foundation has partnered with former Sen. Bill Frist and his Nashville-based global health organization Hope Through Healing Hands. Together, they created the Faith-Based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide, whose mission is to spur faith leaders across the country to get involved in maternal and child health in the developing world.
On Monday they brought their message to Belmont, speaking to an audience of pastors, health experts and Nashville Christian musicians including Amy Grant and Steve Taylor.
Frist acknowledged that faiths diverge on the issues of contraceptive use. The coalition seeks faith-based supporters regardless of their approaches to family planning, whether that includes abstinence or natural family planning, he said. The coalition does not promote abortion.
A longtime abortion foe, Frist said "contraception is as pro-life an issue as you can possibly have. It is a pro-life issue because we save lives and reduce infant and maternal deaths."
Frist and Gates pointed to the success of HIV/AIDS prevention efforts in a short period of time. In 2002, only 50,000 people living with with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa had access to anti-retroviral drugs. Today, more than 12.9 million people have access to such drugs and mortality rates have plummeted.
Childbirth or complications from pregnancy kill 287,000 women each year. If young women delayed a first pregnancy at age 16 until they reached age 18, maternal mortality rates are cut in half, Frist said. Spacing pregnancies farther apart aids women's and children's health.
The coalition hopes to spur a national consensus about aiding parents in developing countries in deciding whether or when to have children.
Reach Anita Wadhwani at 615-259-8092 and on Twitter @AnitaWadhwani.
For more information about Faith-Based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Woldwide, visit www.hopethroughhealinghands.org/faith-based-coalition.