World Contraception Day: How Does Family Planning Impact Maternal Health?

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By: Sarah Hodin, Project Coordinator II, Women and Health Initiative, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Family planning refers to a woman’s ability to choose if and when she becomes pregnant and continues that pregnancy to term. In many parts of the world, a large gap persists between women’s reproductive intentions and their access to family planning options including contraceptives and safe abortion. According to data collected by the United Nations Population Division, in 2015, 12% of married or in-union women of reproductive age around the world had an unmet need for family planning. Unmet need varies widely by region, ranging from 5% in Eastern Asia to 26% in Central Africa. There are many factors that influence unmet need, including a lack of access to information and services, as well as fear of side effects and disapproval from loved ones.

Family planning has important implications for maternal health. In 2008, contraceptive use averted approximately 44% of maternal deaths around the world. One proposed mechanism for this effect is that contraceptive use reduces the number of high-risk and high-parity births, thereby reducing maternal mortality. Access to contraceptives also helps to prevent unwanted pregnancies, some of which result in unsafe abortions—one of the leading causes of global maternal deaths.

Integrating family planning services into maternal health services can be an effective strategy for reducing unmet need, especially in situations where maternity care is a woman’s primary contact with the health care system. Antenatal care provides an opportunity for postpartum family planning education, allowing women to establish healthy birth spacing practices. This strategy also benefits women by increasing their participation in the workforce, which in turn raises household income and allows women to invest in themselves and their families.

While substantial progress has been made over the last few decades in family planning access and utilization, additional efforts are needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target of ensuring “universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences” by 2030. Given the relationship between family planning and maternal mortality, reaching this target will likely contribute to accomplishing the global maternal mortality target of fewer than 70 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.

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