In the United States, especially this year, any occasion when contraceptives and public policy overlap seems to be an excuse to fight about other issues — abortion or the meaning of religious freedom, for instance. But the fact is, literally 99 percent of women in the United States who have had sex use birth control at some point in their lives. What our behavior (if not our rhetoric) tells me is that contraceptives matter to us. They certainly mattered to me. I was able to go to college and business school. I was able to have a rewarding career at Microsoft. And then Bill and I were able to decide how many children to have (three) and when to have them (each three years apart), which I believe made us better parents.
These are some of the same reasons that contraceptives matter to women in developing countries. Like all parents, they want their children to grow up healthy and go to school. Contraceptives don't do all this, of course. They are a single link in a long chain that includes proper nutrition, vaccines, clean water, productive farms and high-quality public schools. But they are the first link, and they give parents a much better opportunity to complete the chain. As one young mother in Kenya told me, "I want to bring every good thing to my child before I have another."
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There are convincing data showing the long-term impact of contraceptives. The leading study, ongoing in Bangladesh for the past 35 years, proves that people who have access to and education about contraceptives have a higher quality of life in almost every conceivable way than those who don't. They are healthier, less likely to die in childbirth, and less likely to have children who die. They are better educated, with sons and daughters who have more schooling. And they are more prosperous: Their households have more total assets, including land, livestock, and savings. On an even larger scale, economists have argued convincingly that the so-called East Asian economic miracle of the 1980s was due in large part to parents in the region deciding to have fewer children.