11/14/2012 02:52 EST | Updated 01/14/2013 05:12 EST

Access to contraception a human right, would cut health costs, UN says

OTTAWA - Canada needs to do more to make family planning tools, resources and services more widely available to people in the developing world, say advocates for a new United Nations report on the plight of the global population.

The UN Population Fund's annual report, released Wednesday in Geneva, calls access to contraception a universal human right that could dramatically improve the lives of women and children in poor countries.

It is the first time the report has explicitly described family planning as a human right.

The federal government should be doing more to ensure contraception is readily available to women in developing countries, said Action Canada for Population and Development, an Ottawa-based advocacy group.

The government promised $1.1 billion over five years to the G8 Muskoka Initiative, an international deal Prime Minister Stephen Harper brokered in 2010 for maternal and child health initiatives in the developing world.

Only a fraction of that money — about $16 million — was earmarked for family planning in the current fiscal year, said Sandeep Prasad, Action Canada's executive director.

"Meeting the unmet need for contraception would reduce the number of maternal deaths by one third, and enable women and girls to claim their basic human right to decide whether, when and under what circumstances to become pregnant," Prasad told a news conference.

"Canada can and should do better on this key human rights and gender equality issue."

The UN report effectively declares that legal, cultural and financial barriers to accessing contraception and other family planning measures are an infringement of women's rights.

The report isn't binding and has no legal effect on national laws.

It found there are 222 million women around the world with an unmet need for family planning. An additional $4.1 billion could save $11.3 billion annually in health bills for mothers and newborns in poor countries, the report said.

The UN doesn't count abortion among the measures.

The report describes contraception as a key component in the economic vitality of a developing country. It cites a study that predicted a $30-billion boost for the economy of Nigeria over 20 years if the fertility rate fell by one child per woman

It also estimates that if 120 million more women had access to family planning services, three million fewer babies would die in their first year of life.

— With files from the Associated Press