Melinda Gates’ Missed Opportunity

Melinda Gates is in London this week, spearheading a “groundbreaking summit” during which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in collaboration with the British government, will launch a $4-billion effort to deliver “family planning” devices to 120 million women by the year 2020. On the basis of feeble yet predictable justifications – surprising only because they survived her “soul–searching” – International Family Planning has become her top priority. Not “population control,” mind you, or some other term that might make it sound coercive or imperialistic or anything like that.

She points to the 100,000 women who die annually in childbirth around the world – the subset is the revelation – after “unintended pregnancies,” and the 600,000 babies of such pregnancies who die in the first month of life. Unintended pregnancy itself, for all intents and purposes, becomes a cause of death – much like the complications and infections that are manageable here, but actually do kill there, whether a woman’s pregnancy is planned or not.

This paves the way for a fundamentally evasive approach to maternal and infant mortality in which upgrading the quality of medical care – insisting on actual survival strategies – is subordinated to the goal of reducing the number of pregnancies. For a private foundation that prides itself on innovation, embracing such a stale concept with its considerable ideological baggage shows a pronounced lack of imagination.

Its creative energies are fixated on upgrading contraceptive technology: developing new contraceptives that women could inject themselves, and perhaps even an entirely new class of (non-hormonal) drug without side effects. The foundation people are even entertaining the “crazy idea” (their words, meant positively) of creating an implantable device which a woman could turn on and off at will, and would last her entire reproductive lifetime.

Such intoxication with the promises of this type of technology, aside from its debased view of man, rooted in materialism, resembles a form of fideism conspicuously resistant to reason. It ignores our capacity to ascertain the full range of proclivities of human nature, which technology cannot tame, or even to observe the havoc contraception has wrought here in recent decades while, unlike actual advances in sanitation and medicine, making no dent in mortality rates.

This time it is to be different: technology will deliver. Countries will wiggle their way out of poverty too. That’s what our numbers say; never mind that artificial contraception, by virtue of the resulting collapse of marriage, has had an impoverishing effect here – even if the affluent consider it a routine accessory. This initiative will bring more poverty and destabilization, not less, by depriving the poor, and societies themselves, of their greatest resource: strong family ties. 

Mere demographic findings cannot sway such blind faith either: the number of children people actually want – their desired fertility rates – turns out to be the single best predictor for their actual fertility levels, and not to be that closely correlated to the availability of contraceptives. In other words, respected demographer Nicholas Eberstadt notes, family planning programs tend not to “make an important independent contribution to reducing fertility levels in developing nations.”

No controversy,” Gates pronounces contrary to such evidence, should really surround it at all. But she sees enough to want to distance herself from similar initiatives, past or present, tinged with coercion, racism, nationalism, eugenics – anything that could be viewed as emanating from the realm of culture rather than strictly benevolent science.

  Melinda Gates, left, and her husband

She would presumably deny exporting “the real and gravest danger” lurking within western culture today, which Benedict XVI diagnosed as the “imbalance between technical possibilities and moral energy.”         

Moral energy? What does that mean?   Gates feels she is acting morally – thereby illustrating Benedict’s point that “the technical mentality relegates morality to the subjective realm.” She just feels that taking matters of sexuality or the natural law seriously means “not serving the other piece of the Catholic mission, which is social justice.”

That’s something she picked up in a Catholic high school run by Ursuline sisters who have now come to her defense by offering their blessing for her contraceptive initiative.  

And there you have it – an entirely emblematic portrait of an era: an influential lay Catholic, influenced by the meltdown in Catholic identity, which is to say by an alternative secular Magisterium, mimics rather than engages the modern world by advancing a hefty proposal heralded as “humanitarian,” but which is actually doomed from the get go.

It can have no other result, since it is based on the belief that what lies at the heart of all authentic human development – the moral fabric that nurtures and protects what Benedict terms the human ecology – is actually an obstacle to such development.

The defects of these proposals are sobering, though Gates seems convinced otherwise: what Benedict calls a lack of “serene rationality” places utopian designs above the dignity of the individual. It exemplifies the type of subjective moralism that has shown itself “capable of arriving at contempt for man in the name of great objectives.”

Although she has come to terms with opposing the “hierarchy” – an easy sounding target – specific theological goggles are not required to see all this. Mahatma Gandhi, for example, regarded artificial contraception as “a dismal abyss” and, in the 1920s, pleaded with its advocates to consider the repercussions, which have now grown into a vast forest, everywhere to be seen – but for the trees.

Gates has far more power than she realizes. It resides not in her bank account but in the fullness of her faith, with its confidence in reason and human capabilities, which she has regrettably left untapped. Tapping into such wisdom confidently, competently, might mean foregoing some applause. But people would take notice of a genuinely innovative alternative – and still want her grants. We might even then see glimpses of renewal and human development blooming in the unlikeliest places.


Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.