What Melinda Gates Gets Wrong About Birth Control

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Melinda Gates’ new book “The Moment of Lift” is subtitled “How Empowering Women Changes the World.”

It’s true. Empowering women can change the world. It has changed the world. It’s still changing the world.

But not completely in the way she thinks.

An entire chapter is dedicated to family planning. It’s called “Every Good Thing.” And just a few years ago, I would have been on board with just about everything she writes in this chapter. Absolutely, women should be able to choose when they have children! Absolutely, women should be empowered to feed their families! I was pro-life, but only to a certain point – contraception was OK, and the Catholic Church was just wrong.

“So I don’t see my actions as putting me at odds with the Church; I feel I am following the higher teaching of the Church,” Gates writes (p. 74).

Oh, that hubris. I know it well: Yes, the Church is great – except when it’s wrong, in those cases when know best. Then … well … I’m sure it’ll come around someday.

It’s only recently that I’ve realized that if you believe in the Church, you must believe in the Church. If you believe the Church is right on some things, but not on others, then you believe the Church is a liar when it says that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit. And if the Church is a liar, then why are you a part of it?

Contraception is supposedly a women’s rights issue. If you are for women’s empowerment, if you are a feminist, then you are pro-birth control. But there are powerful feminist arguments against birth control (for just a few, see FemCatholic.com and VerilyMag.com). The bottom line of these arguments is that it is anti-woman to suppress a woman’s biology – and, in some cases, putting her health at risk – because her society tells her she “can’t” [work/have a good life/feed her other children] with a[nother] baby. In fact, contraception is a band aid. The pill is a band-aid for health problems that have causes that the pill can’t fix. But more broadly, contraception is a band-aid for social problems whose solutions are just not as easy as we’d like them to be.

For example, Gates writes, “Women have told me over and over again, ‘If I ask my husband to wear a condom, he will beat me up'” (p. 58). This situation isn’t an example of why we need to empower women to have their own forms of contraception; it’s evidence of a society that values women so little that it’s OK for their husbands to beat them.

In fact, here’s an idea: Instead of just giving women birth control and assuming that will solve their problems, why don’t we get their husbands not to beat them up?

“Some opponents of contraception conflate it with abortion,” Gates writes. “The simple appeal of letting women choose whether or when to have children is so threatening that opponents strain to make it about something else” (p. 69).

No, opponents of contraception (at least the ones I know) aren’t threatened by the idea of letting women choose whether or when to have children. We’re threatened by the idea that sex is just about using another person for pleasure. We’re threatened by the idea that people can rely on contraception, have it fail and then leave the mother on her own with a baby the world tells her she can’t handle. We’re threatened by the idea that women don’t understand their own health, because doctors put them on a pill without investigating their symptoms or teaching them how to track them. We’re threatened by the idea that the way a woman’s body is made is like a disease. We’re threatened by the idea that instead of giving poor Africans food, water and jobs, we’re giving them birth control.

Actually, scratch that: We’re threatened by the idea that western society thinks that Africans don’t know what they need and that we should push our values onto them, because we know best.

We’re threatened by a lot of things, sure. The concept of women’s choice is not one of them.

In fairness, Gates seems to genuinely believe that she is helping women. I don’t think her intentions are evil. But she has bought into the lie that the only way to empower women is to make them feel helpless in the face of their own fertility. Her ignorance on the topic is highlighted when she says that natural family planning is the same thing as “the rhythm method” (p. 85). It only takes a quick Google search to learn that the rhythm method isn’t – and hasn’t been for some time – the recommended method of NFP for most women (because for most women, it doesn’t work).

In fact, the Church is in favor of other, highly effective, forms of natural family planning when the situation is dire – as it is in the examples Gates shares. Absolutely, families should use NFP when having another child would put the health of their family at risk. Absolutely, families should use NFP when they literally can’t afford another child. The Church, after all, is not unreasonable, and the Church cares deeply about people.

The Church just believes that there are better ways to plan your family than to devalue both women and sex.

“I have felt strong support in this from priests, nuns, and laypeople who’ve told me that I am on solid moral ground when I speak up for women in the developing world who need contraceptives to save their children’s lives,” says Gates. “I welcome their guidance, and it’s reassuring to me that a huge majority of Catholic women use contraceptives and believe it’s morally acceptable to do so. I also know that ultimately moral questions are personal questions. Majorities don’t matter on issues of conscience. No matter what views others may have, I am the one who has to answer for my actions, and this is my answer” (p. 74).

We all must answer for our actions, and in no way do I think I am holier than Melinda Gates (partly because I don’t know her, and partly because I know that I am very much a work in progress). But when someone with as much power as Melinda Gates is sharing a message that can hurt so many women (and men), I am going to use my teeny tiny platform to speak out.

2 thoughts on “What Melinda Gates Gets Wrong About Birth Control

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