Melinda Gates and the Contraceptive Imperialists

Commentary: Imagine what impact Gates would have with Catholic teaching on her side.

Melinda Gates applauds at the London Family Planning Summit recently.
Melinda Gates applauds at the London Family Planning Summit recently. (photo: WPA Pool/ Getty Images News)

It was billed as a major clash: Melinda Gates — the Catholic woman whose husband, Bill, is one of the richest men on the planet — vs. the Pope.

But you may have noticed one thing missing. The stories all told us about Gates’ heroic stand promoting contraception. But none of them had an intelligent defense of the Church’s teaching on contraception and true development in poor countries.

That’s a shame, because the Church is very much in the right on this issue, and Melinda Gates and the contraceptive imperialists she has enriched are very much in the wrong.

The Gates Foundation gift was announced at the London Summit on Family Planning, which has three goals:

1. Convince the world that the best way to fight poverty is to prevent poor people from being born.

2. Put systems in place to make every conceivable contraceptive available to the poor at all times. 

3. Ease the way for legal abortion.

(That’s a translation. The way London Summit organizers say it on their website is this: “1. Revitalize global commitments to family planning and access to contraceptives as a cost-effective and transformational development priority. 2. Improve the access and distribution of contraceptive supplies. 3. Remove and reduce barriers to family planning.”)

Clicking through their website, you start to see the strange backward logic of the family-planning philosophy.

“Contraceptives are one of the best investments a country can make in its future,” announces the London Summit, with no hint of irony. “Each U.S. dollar spent on family planning can save governments up to $6 on health, housing, water and other public services.”

In other words, the best way to help poor people feed children is to eliminate them in the first place so they won’t have to be fed. And the cheapest way to take care of them is to not have to take care of them.

Compare that to a basic Catholic statement about service to the poor, from the Catechism (2439): “Rich nations have a grave moral responsibility toward those which are unable to ensure the means of their development by themselves or have been prevented from doing so by tragic historical events.”

The Church believes that rich nations should increase the availability of resources to the poor. Family planners believe that rich nations should reduce the number of human beings using resources.

If they don’t want to read the Catholic Catechism, perhaps the Gates Foundation folks should read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Ebenezer Scrooge had exactly their answer to poverty: “Decrease the surplus population.”

The Ghost of Christmas Present put him in his place: “It may be that in the sight of heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

Read on at the website, and you learn another dimension to the family-planning philosophy — and this is the one Melinda Gates most often pointed to in interviews: “Family planning saves lives.”

The Gates Foundation’s website explains how family planning saves lives: “Pregnancy is the leading cause of death for women under 19, with complications of childbirth and abortion being the major factors. Adolescents aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die in childbirth as those in their 20s, and girls under 15 are five times as likely to die as those in their 20s.”

In other words, the Gates Foundation is seeing a situation in which guys are having sex with girls so young that pregnancy endangers them. Their answer isn’t to influence the culture to dissuade guys from having sex with dangerously young girls — their answer is to load those girls up with contraception.

When they see young girls endangered by sex, their instinct isn’t to protect the girls — it’s to protect the sex.

The Gates Foundation has great optimism about how they can change attitudes and behavior — but they have decided not to change the culture’s attitudes about sex with underage girls. They want to change underage girls’ attitudes about using contraception.

A guiding light for the London Summit approach to cultural change is the Population Council’s “Family Planning Programs for the 21st Century” report.

Family planners are promoting contraception in Third World countries through radio soaps and television program storylines. They promote it in health centers, schools, door-to-door outreach and meetings in the workplace. They use pictorial logos, slogans, celebrity spokespersons and songs and jingles. There are contraceptive-themed giveaways and novelty items, contests and awards.

Says the report: “Entire populations have moved along the stages of behavior change from knowing little and disapproving greatly,” regarding contraception, “to becoming informed, persuaded and motivated to act.”

This is the New Evangelization as applied to the contraceptive mentality; it is the calculated transformation of cultures that are open to life into cultures that are closed to life using the most sophisticated methods available and huge sums of money.

Imagine if all of this attention and effort were spent on helping people improve their sexual behaviors: learning continence, self-respect, self-giving love and responsibility. Gates’ money could do a truly great thing.

This is exactly the approach that worked in Uganda against AIDS. Craig Timberg recently published Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It, a book about how AIDS spread in Africa. In an interview with Salon magazine, he describes how “Uganda emerged in the early days of the epidemic as a place that took effective action, changed people’s behavior and lowered HIV transmission.”

In 1986, he said, Uganda’s new government got real about AIDS. “They knew it was fatal, they knew it was incurable, they knew it was spread by sex, and they knew a lot of people already had it. So political, religious and cultural leaders focused on changing the sexual behavior that was at the core of HIV’s spread.”

Uganda’s campaign spoke to the agrarian population with an agrarian metaphor that the people understood: “Zero grazing.” Sex with multiple partners was a deadly risk. So it had to stop. Uganda’s lesson was clear: “If a large number of people make a relatively small change in their number of sex partners, it can make a massive difference in the spread of HIV. That’s what happened in Uganda, and hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.”

But he also pointed out that the “powers that be in global health” were reluctant to apply that lesson.

“The overriding lesson is that sex matters,” he said.  “Those of us who care about people getting this terrible disease can’t be squeamish in discussing sexual behavior because we’re afraid of how it makes us look.”

Catholics know well that sex matters. The balanced, profound Catholic teaching on human sexuality gives us the tools we need to address sexual questions with sensitivity to the whole human person, with their moral, psychological and social dimensions intact. If Melinda Gates used her money to promote what the Church teaches about responsible sexuality and the dignity of the human person, she could do a lot of good.

Pope Benedict warned in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate that mass promotion of contraception and abortion quickly become power plays in which rich nations control poor ones.

The contraceptive mentality also has ramifications beyond the realm of the sexual. “When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up losing the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good,” he wrote. “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.”

But Gates didn’t opt for the Catholic view. She opted for the sexual imperialists who do the opposite of what the Church would do.

They go to cultures that see children as a blessing to be welcomed and teach them to see children as a threat to be blocked. They go to cultures that are marked by joy and life and teach them our Western ways, which are marked by depression and the culture of death.

Their policies suggest that they are aghast not at poverty, but at poor people. Their answer isn’t more food, but fewer mouths to feed. The problem they see in Africa isn’t that there is too little opportunity for Africans — it’s that there are too many Africans.

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.