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In a Growing World, What Is an Individual Woman’s Worth?

This week the United Nations Population Division released the 2012 revision of the World Population Prospects, projecting that world population could reach 9.6 billion by mid-century. This represents an increase of 300 million people from the 2010 revision.

In short, our numbers are growing, and they’re growing more than expected.

The larger global population is primarily due to higher-than-expected fertility rates in a number of countries, including 15 high fertility countries in sub-Saharan Africa where declines in fertility have stalled.

What does that mean, in real terms? It means women in these countries are likely having more children than they would like, because they still lack access to modern contraceptives.

Currently, 222 million women in the developing world lack access to modern contraception. If these women all lived in one country, it would be the fifth-largest country in the world. And yet their demands are too often ignored.

The fertility assumptions built into the projections for less developed countries—that childbearing will stabilize at 1.99 children per women, very close to the 2.1 replacement rate—would require major increases in use of family planning. Yet many countries with high fertility also have high unmet need.

Our growing population represents not only a challenge, but a big opportunity for more and more women to take charge of their lives. Helping women and girls gain access to the family planning they want takes commitment: it involves comprehensive sexuality education, more health clinics, skilled providers, and a range of quality contraceptive methods to choose from.

The Guttmacher Institute estimates it would take $8.1 billion per year to fill this gap, and meet women’s needs. Of that, the U.S. share is $1 billion.

That may sound like a lot, but consider some of the other things our government spends $1 billion on: advertising, maintenance of empty buildings, subsidies for Amtrak. In fact, the U.S. government spends $1 billion every 2.5 hours.

When you think about what you’re buying, family planning is a bargain.

Putting $1 billion toward family planning would mean a woman’s trip to the clinic might be shorter, her chances of finding contraception in stock better, her choice of methods broader. It would be an investment toward 222 million opportunities for staying in school, for new careers, for healthy children with more secure futures.

Ultimately, the policies and investments we make today will also determine whether our numbers climb to, or even exceed, the levels the U.N. is projecting. But the difference it can make for women and their families now goes beyond what can be measured with models and numbers.

Policymakers—in the U.S. and around the world—must take the next step and commit to providing women and adolescents with voluntary access to family planning and reproductive health.