Archive for the 'Family Planning' Category

Recognize Family Planning as a Human Right

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

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Family planning was declared to be a basic human right fifty years ago this month. The right to family planning was included in the International Conference on Human Rights held in Tehran, May 1968.

The concept of universal human rights started after World War II with the United Nations. Its charter included the obligation “…to promote… universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without discrimination….” The Tehran conference was held 23 years later to define what those rights are. One of several points states:

“The protection of the family and of the child remains the concern of the international community. Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children”

The 84 countries attending this Iranian conference agreed to be bound by the decisions, but the world has changed radically since then. For one thing, there are more than double that number of countries. Furthermore, global population has more than doubled from 3,600,000,000 to 7,500,000,000 people. On the good side, there are more, safer and more effective methods of contraception available. The right to family planning is supported by many programs, including FP2020 which works in many developing countries. Planned Parenthood and the federal Title X (ten) program in the USA are under jeopardy because of a proposed law limiting healthcare providers from mentioning the word “abortion”.

Unfortunately the right to family planning is being limited or taken away in many countries. Funding for many organizations working internationally has been barred by the Global Gag Rule. The GGR prevents the US from funding any foreign agency that provides abortion services anywhere—or even mentions the word “abortion”. Because of the lack of these services women will go without birth control and there will be millions of unplanned pregnancies, and thousands of women will die from complications of pregnancy—and, ironically, there will be more abortions!

The Tehran Proclamation has 9 standards to uphold the human right to family planning. These include non-discrimination, availability of information, accessibility of services and supplies, quality, autonomy of decision making, privacy and confidentiality. I am happy to report my experience has been that these standards are upheld everywhere I have worked,. 

It is difficult to envision a UN conference being held in Iran now—there have been many changes since 1968. The Shah was overthrown in 1979 and the country became an Islamic theocracy, lead by a “Supreme Leader”. A pleasant surprise came about a decade later.

High level government and university experts held a conference in 1988 to discuss Iran’s population, which was increasing rapidly at that time. Attendees agreed “…that the rate of population growth in the Islamic Republic of Iran was high and this would have a negative effect on the welfare of the people. Hence, the participants strongly urged the Government to set up a family planning programme and integrate population factors in policy-making.” (quoted from “A New Direction in Population Policy and Family Planning in the Islamic Republic of Iran”)

The High Judicial Council of Iran decided “family planning does not have any Islamic barrier” so long as abortion was not involved. New laws were passed to promote small families. Couples were required to take birth control classes before they could get a marriage license. Government clinics were set up offering a wide choice of methods, including vasectomy. In addition, the government discouraged childbearing before age 18 and after 35 and recommended that children be spaced 3 or 4 years apart. The family planning program urged couples to have no more than 3 children; government employees lost some of their benefits, such as maternity leave and food coupons, if the family had more than 3 children. 

The TFR (the average number of children that a woman bears in her lifetime) in Iran had been as high as 7.0, had decreased to 5.5 in 1988 and now is less than replacement at 1.8—the same as the USA. It doesn’t mean that population is shrinking—there are millions of children and teens whose reproductive years are still ahead of them—so it will take decades before the population stabilizes.

A dictatorship can use its influence to slow population growth. Although there are many dictators in the world today, I think Iran is the most successful in slowing its growth. That sort of heavy-handed governing wouldn’t work in the USA. Indeed, I believe that people should have the right “…to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children.”

© Richard Grossman MD, 2018

Reduce Barriers to Family Planning

Sunday, December 24th, 2017

There’s no good news about male contraceptives yet, but there is much progress in the field of family planning for women. This column will touch on some of the high points.

Perhaps the best news is that, globally, more women who want to avoid pregnancy are using an effective contraceptive method. The number who weren’t using modern contraception was estimated to be 225 millionin 2014but is 214 million now. The decrease is partly due to huge efforts from Family Planning 2020 to make better family planning available in developing countries. With local support as well as funding from rich countries and foundations, FP2020 has provided over 30million women with effective contraception.

The goal of FP2020 is to reach 120 million previously unserved women with effective family planning by the year 2020. In many places couples only had access to one or two methods, such as condoms or tubal ligation. FP2020’s strategy includes avoiding coercion and offering a choice of several methods.

Please remember that it is not just developing countries that wrestle with unintended fertility. In 2008 in the USA 51% of pregnancies were unintended. There is good news here, too; it is now just 45%. This decrease, and the significant decrease in abortions, is thought to be due to Long Acting Reversible Contraception—LARCs. These methods include IUDs, implants and the 3-month shot. One in 7 women in the USA is now using these most reliable types of birth control.

LARCs have two shortcomings, however. In general they are expensive—but remember that dollar-for-dollar, contraception saves more than any other health intervention!

The other problem with LARCs is convenience, since most require a health care professional. An exception is the 3-month shot, “Depo” or DMPA. This has been in use for birth control for almost 50 years, but requires a clinic visit 4 times a year.

Sayana Press® is an innovative solution that is accepted very well. It is a small plastic bubble filled with the medication and a short attached needle. The woman just punctures her skin, squeezes the bulb and she is protected against pregnancy for 90 days.

Malawi, a small East African country with large families, compared women who went to the clinic to get their shots with women who injected the medicine themselves. They found that women who were given the first shot at the clinic then took home 3 Sayana Presses® were much more likely to use the medication for a full year.

Birth control pills are available without prescription in many countries, and the USA will be following suit if Daniel Grossman has any say. Grossman and I may be distantly related, and we are very close in our belief that “the pill” is amazingly safe and there should be minimal barriers to its access. Grossman has started the “Free the Pill” campaign. This would follow the way Emergency Contraceptive (EC) pills have gone over the counter; Amazon.com now sells EC pills!

Another physician named Grossman—Jessica—heads up Medicines 360. This organization has as its mission “…to expand access to medicines for women regardless of their socioeconomic status, insurance coverage, or geographic location.” Their first product is a big success! Liletta® is an IUD that releases a hormone over 4 years, is safe and very effective, and decreases menstrual bleeding and cramping. It is primarily sold to clinics and is significantly less expensive than similar IUDs.Recently there is good news about all IUDs; they reduce the risk of a woman getting cervical cancer.

When Trump reinstated and expanded the Global Gag Rule, the Dutch started “SheDecides” to replace essential funding for reproductive health. More countries, foundations and individuals have stepped up to pledge $200 million! This amazing organization’s goal is to make it possible for “…girls and women to decide freely and for themselves about their sexual lives, including whether, when, with whom and how many children they have.”

Most couples in the USA use contraception at some time in their lives, even if their religion opposes birth control. In much of the global south, however, this is not the case. There the Roman Catholic hierarchy turns most women away from birth control. This might change, however. The Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome will be holding a series of talks on the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, according to the National Catholic Register.

Despite political forces in this country that are trying to erect barriers around access to family planning, there is a lot of good news about contraception for women.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2017

Ask Young Women One Key Question

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

What can health-care providers, friends and parents do to help young women focus on their reproductive goals? Ask “one key question,” which is: “Would you like to become pregnant in the next year?”

Obviously this takes a special relationship with the women. That relationship is assumed with a doctor or other health-care provider, but may not be practical with some other relationships. However, if you do have such a relationship with a young woman, asking this question may help her clarify her goals.

One advantage of this question is that it is nonjudgmental. Furthermore, it doesn’t ask about the distant future, but only asks about the next 12 months. These are both reasons that it is a well-accepted way of opening an important conversation.

How have women responded? Apparently many women already have a pregnancy plan and know what their reproductive goals are for the next year. If the woman wishes to conceive, the discussion can then go toward having a healthy baby. Among other actions, she should start on prenatal vitamins, eat a healthy diet and avoid tobacco, alcohol and drugs.

If the woman responds that she does not want to become pregnant in the next year, or if she is unsure, there is a follow-up question: “Are you currently using a contraceptive method that you are satisfied with?” When the reply is, yes, she is happy with her birth control method, she is reminded about emergency contraception (EC). However, if a woman answers that she is not pleased with her contraceptive method, or is not using any birth control, this is a perfect time for contraceptive counseling—including a reminder about EC.

EC pills such as Plan B are now available without prescription and are safe, although not 100% effective. They are good up to 3 days after unprotected sex, and work best if taken within 12 hours of exposure. There is a relatively new EC pill, ella® (ulipristal); it has the advantage of being more effective (especially for heavy women), and works up to 5 days after sex. Neither of these will cause an abortion if a pregnancy is already established.

Most effective is an IUD which contains copper, such as the Paragard®. It works as EC for up to 5 days after sex—and can provide protection against pregnancy for as long as a decade.

Now you can now purchase Plan B and Ella® on the Internet! Go to www.prjktruby.com and you will find both of these are available (they sell a generic equivalent of Plan B). In addition, women can get “the pill” through this same website. The world of reproductive health is changing!

The yearly Pap smear is a thing of the past. Now women can go several years without seeing a provider for reproductive health care, if ever. Although this saves the embarrassment of a pelvic exam and saves money, it also means that women may not have the opportunity to update their knowledge about contraception. In addition, birth control pills are available without a provider visit, including at Planned Parenthood, through www.prjktruby.com and in some states.

Both Oregon and California have passed laws that allow women to purchase oral contraceptives (if they are in good health) just by speaking with a pharmacist. Do you remember when ibuprofen was only available with a prescription? Fortunately there is a way to petition to make a prescription medication available “over the counter”. This is what happened to Plan B as well as ibuprofen. Oral contraceptives are so safe that there is pressure on the FDA to make them available without prescription in all 50 states.

As the barriers to family planning are overcome it is important to be certain that women are aware of the method that is best for them. This is why the “one key question” is important. In Oregon, where this campaign got started, it is recommended that all family practice doctors and other practitioners who care for women of reproductive ages routinely inquire if they plan to conceive in the next year.

The birth rate in the USA is dropping, but still almost half of the pregnancies conceived are unplanned. This one key question could help to decrease the numbers of unintended pregnancies, and of abortions.

Recently a reader was kind enough to suggest that I write about “one key question”, and I am happy to follow up on the suggestion. I welcome feedback from readers, whether you like what I have written or hate it. My email address is: richard@population-matters.org; please remember the hyphen!

             © Richard Grossman MD, 2017

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.