If the formula for lowering teen birth rates is education plus contraception, it needs to be supported worldwide. I came to this conclusion after a two-week trip to Israel and Jordan, where I observed firsthand the increasing family size among some populations groups.
While in the Middle East, I became aware of the rising population rates within two distinct groups: the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and the Palestinian Arab population in in the West Bank and in Jordan. Although both view having many children as an expression of their religious beliefs, and do not endorse artificial contraception, both groups seem, to this outsider, to be involved in a race to beat each other by out-populating the other.
In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish adults that I saw walking through Jerusalem were more often than not trailed by a lengthy line of children. Upon return, I found an article that reported that this community’s “fertility rate” is “hovering at more than three times that of other Israel Jews.” The experts quoted projected that by 2034, “about one in five Israelis will be ultra-Orthodox,” which means the population will continue to increase, putting stress on living conditions, scarce resources, and political decisions affecting some of the secular aspects of Israeli society.
I only have a personal story to back up my estimations of increasing population rates among Palestinian Arabs. When in Petra, Jordan, I stopped to look at a little table arrayed with jewelry and other trinkets for sale by a Palestinian Arab young woman. She wore a long, brown neck-to-toe robe and a headscarf and held an adorable, rosy-cheeked baby boy in her arms.
Perhaps the reporter in me prompted me to ask our guide to ask the smiling young woman the age of her baby and at what age she had married. Both her answers surprised me: She had married at age 13, and, now, at 19, had six children. Our guide told us that most young Bedouin Arab women marry early, have little education and marry young men who do not believe in using contraception.
Which brings me to Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In a recent speech in Berlin, she called for “universal access to birth control that women want in developed and developing countries.” Gates, who is Catholic, believes such access could save “hundreds of thousands of lives annually and that “one of the simplest and most transformational things we can do is give everybody access to birth control.”
Perhaps I am naïve to think that there are young women in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and other developing nations of the world who, like their U.S. counterparts, are connected by their desire for access to contraception, so they can plan their families and give their children better, stronger, and more secure lives. Before I left for my trip to the Middle East, I read that modern Orthodox high schools in Israel had instituted sex education for both boys and girls (who attend school separately). The journey of a thousand miles, goes an old Chinese proverb, does begin with a single step.
Education and contraception: perfect together.
It is a vision we can make a reality.