God bless you, Mr. Gates. You made a pile of dough, and now you’re trying to spread the love—like your foundation’s efforts to fight disease and poverty throughout the developing world. You’re making possible tremendous change for the good—keep it up! The world admires and applauds you.
Here’s the problem, though: In addition to underwriting tons of initiatives that directly and indirectly address disease and poverty, the Gates Foundation seems inordinately interested in “family planning”—a euphemism, as I’m sure your know, for birth control.
That’s a problem because people might get the idea that the two things are connected—the fighting disease and poverty thing on the one hand, and the family planning agenda thing on the other.
Take your recent Wall Street Journal article about polio eradication in India. What you and your foundation have done and are doing there is magnificent, and your commitment to underwriting such important work is truly edifying. But you let the cat out of the bag with this opening statement:
Our foundation began working in India a decade ago, at a time when many feared that the country would become a flashpoint for HIV/AIDS. Since then, we have expanded into other areas, including vaccines, family planning and agricultural development [emphasis added].
Agricultural development? Excellent. And vaccines? Again, excellent, especially with reference to the successes you’ve seen in India.
But why family planning? What does that have to do with combating disease? Family planning only helps with that when you’re talking about condoms, and we both know your organization is into lots more birth control methods than that. The Gates Foundation advocates the use of contraceptives akin to Depo-Provera shots and Norplant implants. These are abortifacient drugs that are known to be dangerous to women. In fact, Norplant was outlawed in the U.S. in 2002. Distributing a Norplant equivalent overseas sends a distressing message at best.
That’s bad enough, but there’s more. By linking development with family planning, you leave yourself open to the accusation that you’re going to battle sickness by shrinking the number of the sick—or that you want to reduce destitution by reducing the destitute population. Less people? Less poverty and disease—problems solved!
Perhaps such censure wouldn’t be relevant if the family planning services you underwrite were truly voluntary, no strings attached—you know, like if it were really clear that you just wanted to offer impoverished parents the help they need to avoid more mouths to feed.
But your foundation’s ulterior motives are hard to camouflage. The Family Planning Strategy Overview on the Gates Foundation website pays lip service to “voluntary family planning” as “one of the great public health advances of the past century.” However, there’s also disturbing language that hints at a vision for something a bit more compulsory:
In selected countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, our strategy aims to:
• Increase the use of modern contraceptives.…
• Introduce innovative, low-cost solutions that can expand the supply of and demand for family planning products and services [emphases added]
Disturbing aims like these correspond with some disturbing associations your foundation maintains. For example, the Gates Foundation partners with the U.N. in working toward that body’s Millennium Development Goals—like this one, which includes a benchmark that shows there’s still plenty of “work” to be done:
Achieve universal access to reproductive health….
• The large increase in contraceptive use in the 1990s was not matched in the 2000s.
One more concern along these lines: Abortion. Your foundation’s Family Planning Strategy mentions “fewer” abortions as something laudable and achievable. Yet, at the same time, the Foundation seems to be involved in promoting more abortion, not less—like at that conference in Ethiopia earlier this month, where there was a workshop entitled “Efforts to Implement Policies that Expand Access to Safe Abortion.” You can’t have it both ways.
The real threat here was identified by Pope Paul VI way back in 1968:
Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this [contraceptive] power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law…. Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.
At the time, I imagine many wrote off the Pope as a crank, but his warning isn’t so far-fetched these days. Case in point: the Chinese experience of enforced one-child policies, with associated skewed demographics, forced abortions, and suppression of reproductive dissent. You don’t want to be party to creating that kind of repressive situation in India, do you? Especially when even China is backing off totalitarian family planning these days.
Anyway, I’ve made my point, but I want to leave you with an image to ponder. G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay about social reform and contraception in which he drew an absurd comparison between birth control and decapitation. Chesterton then made this assertion:
But anybody ought to be able to see that if we once simplify things by head cutting we can do without hair-cutting; that it will be needless to practise dentistry on the dead or philanthropy on the unborn—or the unbegotten. So it is not a provision for our descendants to say that the destruction of our descendants will render it unnecessary to provide them with anything.
What we need is not fewer people, but fewer selfish people—not smaller populations, but bigger hearts. And bigger hearts are cultivated primarily by exhortation and example—by reminding folks of goodness and generosity and sacrifice through persuasive discourse and lived witness. Your own example is a fabulous model for these things. Please don’t tarnish it with outdated notions connecting social progress with family planning. They didn’t work in the 1960s. Or the 1970s. They won’t work now either.
Instead, take heed your own words in that Wall Street Journal article you wrote: “What some call a weakness can be a source of great strength.” Babies are not the enemy. Indeed, contrary to neo-Malthusian naysayers everywhere, the next generation is this generation’s hope—far from being a burden to avoid, kids carry the future before them. You touched on this idea when describing India’s vaccination initiative, and your words would make a great motto for your foundation: “The heart of the plan was a simple and inspiring mission: to find the children.” To find the children, not to get rid of them. Craft a strategy for your foundation around that idea, and you’ll accomplish even more remarkable things.
Again, thanks for all the real good you’re making possible in the world, and for your example of selfless giving. I hope many imitate your abundant generosity.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared November 24, 2013 on the author’s blog entitled “One Thousand Words A Week” and is reprinted with permission.