Here’s something most women already know: contraception does more than just prevent unwanted pregnancies.  It’s also prescribed to regulate menstrual cycles, lower cancer risk, and now according to a study by Johns Hopkins University, it also has the potential to reduce maternal mortality by nearly a third in developing countries.

Worldwide, approximately 358,000 women and 3 million newborns die each year due to complications arising in pregnancy and childbirth, almost entirely in developing countries.  In these countries, between 10 and 15 percent of pregnancies lead to the mother’s death due to unsafe abortions.  According to the study’s lead author, Saifuddin Ahmed, MBBS, “Our findings reinforce the need to accelerate access to contraception in countries with a low prevalence of contraceptive use where gains in maternal mortality prevention could be greatest. Vaccination prevents child mortality; contraception prevents maternal mortality.”

The researchers pointed to three main ways that contraceptives reduce maternal mortality: by postponing first pregnancies which are riskier in younger women, by lowering the need for unsafe abortions, and by allowing women to take longer breaks between pregnancies.

The study comes just days before a major family planning conference will be held in London, organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the British government.  The goal is to focus international attention back on the issue, which in 1995 received 55 percent of international population assistance funds, but fell to just 6 percent in 2008.  As population growth increases, instead of stabilizing as expected, experts are most worried about the effects in sub-Saharan Africa where fertility is high but food and water is very low, and getting worse.

Discussions of birth control in the United States almost invariably get entangled in religious debate.  But as this study makes clear, and the upcoming conference will no doubt emphasize, access to contraceptives does more than just give so-called “sluts” a free pass – it saves lives.

Main image credit: Nopsa