Melinda Gates suggests Vatican should approve modern contraceptives

Bill and Melinda Gates [Georgi Gotev]

Challenged to comment on Pope Francis’ recent comment that Catholics shouldn’t “breed like rabbits”, Melinda Gates told a Brussels audience that women in developing countries should be educated, and use modern methods of contraception in family planning.

Visiting Brussels on Thursday (22 January), Bill and Melinda Gates spoke to a conference, organised by The Economist, elaborating on some of the ideas they presented the same day in their annual letter.

Melinda Gates, a Catholic, but pro-choice, was challenged by the moderator to comment on the recent comment by the Pope, which reinvigorated the debate on family planning, both in the West, and the developing world.

On his return flight from Manila to Rome, Pope Francis gave a long press conference, in which he said that Catholics should not feel they have to breed “like rabbits” because of the Church’s ban on contraception. The issue obviously arose over his visit to the Philippines, where the Vatican opposes a government law to make contraceptives easily available.

But the leader of the 1.2 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church restated its ban on artificial birth control, adding that there are “many ways that are allowed” to practice natural family planning.

Melinda Gates said that she was “super excited” about the Pope turning the church toward the problems of poverty, and that what he was doing was “phenomenal”.

However, regarding his statement that Catholics should not breed like rabbits, she said that the Pope was referring to the rhythm method of contraception, and that he was not in favour of modern contraceptives.

The rhythm method was something the Catholic Church already backed in the 1940s, she said, suggesting that the Vatican had not progressed on the issue since. She mentioned that two Vatican councils in the 1960s recommended birth control, but the then-pontiffs vetoed down the proposals.

Gates said she didn’t know where the Catholic Church would go on this, but that she found it unacceptable that wealthy countries use modern methods of contraception, and that the same tools were not given to the developing world.

The mistake the world made in the 1970s, by engaging in top-down population control was “absolutely the wrong thing to do”, she said, referring to coercive measures such as the Chinese government “one-child” policy.

The right thing to do is to put the decision in the hands of the women, to educate them and let them voluntarily decide, Melinda Gates said. She mentioned the innovative ways of contraception supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in particular, the development of a lozenge-like contraceptive tablet that could be placed in the vagina.

Asked about what difference philanthropy can make, Melinda Gates said its added value was in taking risks, engaging in experiments, and experimenting in situations “when governments can’t or won’t”. She noted that vaccines on HIV and malaria are risks that the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation took.

Asked what his biggest success was over his last fifteen years as a philanthropist, without hesitation, Bill Gates mentioned achievements in vaccinations, and a 40% reduction in child deaths, as a consequence of his foundation’s partnerships with other organisations.

Gates mentioned that on 27 January in Berlin, a fundraising event for the next five years will take place. This, he said, was the timeframe in which vaccines for diarrhea and pneumonia, two of the biggest killers of children, would apply worldwide.

In their annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates make the bet that the lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. They foresee the elimination of polio and three other diseases, and say Africa will be able to feed itself.

The Gates were received by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Development Commissioner Neven Mimica. The European Commission issued no press releases, and the philanthropists declined to comment on  their meetings with EU officials.

Subscribe to our newsletters