Setting aside for the moment obvious Catholic moral considerations, one of the primary justifications advanced by proponents of funding contraception in Third World countries is the notion that millions of women there want it and would use it to plan their families — but don’t because it is not available to them. 

Thus the concept of “unmet need,” which a family planning summit in London in July sought to address. Leaders of countries and philanthropists (most famously, Melinda Gates, who identifies as a practicing Catholic), pledged $2.6 billion to reach 120 million of the 222 million women with an “unmet need” for contraception. 

But prominent economists say that calculations fails.  

“The usual numbers bandied about for estimates of ‘unmet need’ do not correspond to any definition of ‘unmet need’ that any economist (or just common sense) could agree to. They are an advocacy construct that has been successfully used in the overall political agenda for promoting family planning,” said Harvard economist Lant Pritchett, in a recent online discussion on the topic hosted by a World Bank economist. Susan Yoshihara, senior vice president for research at the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, highlighted the exchange in a blog post. 

“Pritchett,” she wrote, “emphasized the fact that ‘unmet need’ is ‘predominantly’ made up of women who do not want to use contraception due to religious or health reasons, or because they are past childbearing age or are celibate.” 

Continuing to see “need” where there is no demand, Pritchett said, reflects a “paternalistic approach inherent in demographically driven family planning programs.” 

Simply for human dignity’s sake, efforts to help the poor should start with listening to them.