Melinda Gates, and Why We MUST Talk About Abortion

800px-Bill_og_Melinda_Gates_2009-06-03_(bilde_01)Reprinted from RH Reality Check. Read the original here.

While they don’t bother putting her name on the Forbes list, by virtue of marriage Melinda Gates is the richest woman in the world. She proudly considers herself an advocate for family planning and women’s health. “I am focused on one thing,” she wrote in a recent blog post, “the opportunity to make a difference in tens of millions of women’s lives by giving them access to the information and resources they need to plan their families.”

But, there’s a catch: She doesn’t want to talk about abortion, and the Gates Foundation won’t fund it.

“Around the world there is a deep, broad, and powerful consensus: we should provide all women the information and tools to time and space their pregnancies in a safe and healthy way that works for them,” Gates writes. She goes on to express dismay that journalists wish to talk to her about what she calls the “abortion debate,” writing that she “struggle[s] with the issue” and chastising others for “conflating [abortion] with the consensus on so many of the things we need to do to keep women healthy.”

The stakes are high, she claims. “The only way” to provide “tens of millions” of women “the contraceptives that they want” is to be “clear, focused, and committed.” In other words, Gates holds a view of maternal health and women’s empowerment so expansive and huge that a pregnant woman in desperate need of abortion won’t fit.

Her thinking is, to put it mildly, flawed.

Perhaps you have heard of Hobby Lobby or encountered photographs of the all-male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church? There is no consensus on providing all women access to contraception. Further still, the foes of abortion routinely argue that birth control is abortion. Most of all, it’s ludicrous to position yourself as an advocate for reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health if you are willing to ignore women endangered by an unsafe abortion or unsustainable pregnancy.

But what I’d like to explore further is an underlying premise within a Gatesian view of reproductive rights and the women’s movement: that a commitment to abortion rights holds progress for women back.

She is not alone. Conversations about abortion are often assumed “toxic” not just to feminism and the equality movement, but political progress in general. If only, the thinking goes, those who believe in abortion rights and access to family planning could keep their mouths shut at strategic times (like during elections, attempts to get a bill passed, or let’s face it, pretty much any time), other progressive goals could be achieved (never mind the fact that the right opposes them, too) and we wouldn’t attract the attention of those who seek to restrict reproductive rights.


The anti-choice movement includes folks who believe they are on a mission from God, including some organizations that are actively working to infiltrate the government. The anti-choice movement benefits from millions upon millions of funding from the Koch brothers, works hand-in-glove with Republican leadership, and is regularly tolerated as part of an invoked greater good by the Democratic Party in the form of candidates and policy at the national, state, and local levels. (In contradiction to its own platform, mind you: “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay. We oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”)

The anti-choice movement will not slink away quietly if abortion rights advocates keep their mouths shut. We need more conversation about reproductive rights and justice, not less.

Dividing people on the basis of sexuality and reproductive capacity is a central part of how sexism operates. It’s positively jejune to see violence against women, or discrimination against women in the workplace, as wholly independent from views of women by matter of biological destiny as sexual objects to serve men, and caregivers to tend the hearth and home. It was no coincidence or freakish gaffe when Phyllis Schlafly recently claimed that paying women the same as men would make it harder for women to find husbands; she was, very strategically, trying to implant doubt among women that they can be “hot” and call for equality at work at the same time.

Not all women may become pregnant, but it’s true that the specter of pregnancy, caregiving and presumed heterosexual availability supports discrimination against them. So if we really want constitutional equality, equality in pay and parity in leadership, and an end to violence against women, we do need to acknowledge that the various and far more numerous goals of empowering women will truly work only when women are able to exercise meaningful control over their own lives—including, and especially, their reproductive lives.

But what about those women’s organizations that purposefully avoid taking positions on reproductive rights? One such organization is The New Agenda. Its president, Amy Siskind, [said] that the issue simply doesn’t come up in the group’s work, especially in its work with companies and universities to promote networking and professional success for millennial women.

Separate from the organization, Siskind [explained] that she had gone from supporting Hillary Clinton in 2008 to the John McCain/Sarah Palin ticket. “I honestly believed that the [Republican] mindset was to be not neutral but libertarian on social issues,” she said. “I thought we could put those issues away and start to vote based on other issues. … I’ve been shocked [since] then,” she said, noting that she was caught “totally by surprise” in 2011 by a record-breaking push to enact abortion restrictions.

This is not to say that The New Agenda is bad; if the group wants to bring people of diverse mindsets on choice to support women in other arenas, good for them. But from an explicitly political point of view—which is much bigger than one organization, much less all of them—the only way to hold people accountable to respecting women’s fundamental human rights is to talk about women’s fundamental human rights. A strategy of silence has no track record of proving itself believable.

The abortion debate doesn’t poison political discourse. It is not to blame for stalled progress on other initiatives that would improve women’s lives. In fact, other women’s rights causes would likely benefit a great deal from culture change that affirms the value of abortion—in women’s lives, as a commitment to equality, as a matter of public health.

Melinda Gates and others like her may have a lot of money, but we have a lot of voices. There is no need for reproductive health, rights and justice advocates to mute ourselves for the greater good. Really, what good would that be?

Photo of Melinda and Bill Gates courtesy of Kjetil Ree via Wikimedia Commons.


Erin Matson is an editor-at-large at RH Reality Check. She has appeared in a variety of publications and frequently on television, including ABC World News, BBC World News and MSNBC. An organizer and strategist, Matson has led local, state and national advocacy campaigns on areas including abortion rights, contraceptive access and cultural representations of women.




  1. We don’t need Melinda Gates. Why vilify her for focusing elsewhere? Until women everywhere speak up for themselves and support politicians who support abortion, no amount of money will win this fight.

  2. Jeremy Bartlett says:

    This piece is spot on. I know the meme that we’ve lived with for the past 20 or so years is that abortion should be safe, legal… and rare. As if abortion is this horrible thing that is only marginally better than NOT having abortion. By getting people to acknowledge or admit to shame or regret surrounding abortion they lay the foundation for much worse policies. And now we have active supposed feminists pretending the issue doesn’t even exist. This is the way abortion slowly slips backwards to the old back alley nightmare. Abortion is a medical procedure, nothing more. More fetuses are aborted via miscarriage every year than via actual medical procedure, and yet some of us pretend there is something terrible about a woman taking charge of her life to actually plan when and with whom to have children. Women who are not in the right circumstances to have a child should immediately think of abortion, because there are already too many unwanted children in the world, and its just a medical procedure that mimics a natural process anyway. There should be no shame, and there should be no hesitation to seek an abortion or to discuss it openly. It should never have become a political issue in the first place, but here we are. So to Melinda Gates I would say, wake up, because abortion is about women’s autonomy. You can’t discuss women’s autonomy without discussing abortion, period. If you try to do otherwise you are failing and all your money won’t do much to help anyone. Sometimes I get the feeling from the Gates billionaires that they care more about looking like they care than actually caring. Bill working with companies like Monsanto and school “reform” shysters, and now this about Melinda Gates… they are so cut off from reality they can’t do much to help anyone IMO.

  3. Britney says:

    I understand why the two issues are indeed connected – abortion falls right in with women’s reproductive rights.
    However Melinda has changed many women’s lives in the developing world. She has committed to bringing contraception to women who have no control over their reproductive health – something that those of you in 1st world countries cannot begin to understand. I’m South African, and routinely as we walk the streets in our cities there are posters up for back street abortions and questionable witch doctor muti options to prevent pregnancy (or help you win the lottery for that matter). This is coming from a country who’s citizens have absolute access to abortions… One can only imagine how difficult things are for women in truly third world situations.

    As a pro-choice believer myself, I can however see the difference between abortions and contraception as two different things, with the latter being even more important than the option to terminate pregnancies. The right over getting pregnant in the first place is one of the most relevant ways to help women and girls out of their oppressed situations and into a more self-controlled cycle of opportunity. Of course abortions should be available, but they are not and should not be used as a form of contraception. Melinda Gates chose to tackle contraception aid to the developing world.

    Don’t stigmatize Melinda Gates for not speaking about only one section of women’s reproductive rights when she has done so so much for women far afield – speaking against her religion the entire time.
    She’s a brave woman, and has the right to the choice of what to speak about. Don’t overlook the great work she has done.

  4. Abortion rights most definitely came up in discussions at the New Agenda’s initial meetings. Siskind and her group chose to disregard concerns over the clearly anti-choice extremist positions of the McCain-Palin ticket. The group even invited McCain’s advisor Carly Fiorina to a meeting at which she did not hold back on the Republican party’s rabid anti-choice platform. Many of us left when it was clear the New Agenda wished to ignore women’s reproductive rights. It was pointed out that only the financially well-off can make that decision because they will be able to pay for whatever they need and go where ever they need to get it. Reproductive rights comes up in every discussion about advancing women, particularly on college campuses. Siskind is either trying to justify her past actions or is choosing to turn a blind eye to the perpetuation of the rape tolerant environment found on college campuses around the country. Check out Also, can she possibly choose to ignore the re-introduced idea of “legitimate rape”? Further, 2011? What kind of excuse it that? Abortion restrictions around the country have been on the rise throughout the 2000’s. Siskind need merely have looked at what George W Bush did to abortion rights. Perhaps, like Melinda Gates, Siskind thinks it is more lady-like to refrain from discussing abortion and the discomfort such a dialogue may cause – But women’s health and rights are at stake. Women cannot afford to go back in time. We need open, clear discussion about of comprehensive reproductive rights including family planning which does include abortion.

  5. Anne Bascom-Tollefson says:

    She either does not believe in a woman’s right to choose or she is just afraid to be judged for that belief. I do find, however that when someone refuses to say this is what I believe and stands up for it that they do not hold that belief. This is a case where silence is not golden. I do not vilify her for her other areas of focus but let’s get real , you either believe in a woman having control of her own body or you don’t. Speaking up for woman ‘s right to safe abortion can not be separated from that freedom. Thanks you for the article.

    • Melissa Gates stated on the Gates website on June 2nd in part ““That is why when I get asked about my views on abortion, I say that, like everyone, I struggle with the issue, but I’ve decided not to engage on it publicly—and the Gates Foundation has decided not to fund abortion.”

      Her own statement eludes to exactly what she means – she struggles with the issue. One who works to further the health and welfare of families, mothers and children holds them all in esteem. Why would it not stand to reason the life ending outcome of abortion would be something one could struggle with? Her words again are “…I say that, like everyone, I struggle with the issue…”. In reality, as a mother and a woman who has had an abortion, so do I. For those who would tout they have no problem with abortion, I find the finality of that particular opinion flawed by an unsettling superficiality.

  6. Anne Bascom-Tollefson says:

    I w ill add that I do appreciate her other work.

  7. You do know that we live in a capitalist nation? Of course money matters. Money equals power, influence, government.. you can ping this article around Facebook all day long. Unless you have money and lobbyists, you haven’t matched even .01 cent to a million of her influential dollars.

    • Tobysgirl says:

      Thank you, laura! I have ZERO respect for the Gateses and it disturbs me that people seemingly have no insight into the capitalist practice of grabbing onto as much money as possible then letting some of it trickle back to us plebes to “benefit” us.

  8. Riley Holden says:

    I am disturbed to hear that the Gates Foundation does not fund abortion. How can anyone work with women around their reproductive choices and not realize the fundamental importance of the ability to end a pregnancy when necessary? What’s more, I strongly dislike it when people say that “everyone” struggles with abortion, as if to imply that you are morally bankrupt if you do not. This just points to their utter disregard for the true reason abortion is so contentious. It has very little to do with the fetus. If it did, anti-abortionists would make certain to fund social service agencies and services instead of doing the exact opposite. No, the whole abortion debate is, and always has been, about control over women’s fertility. Nothing more, nothing less. Our media’s inability to shine a light on this (it’s crystal clear if you do your homework) is the reason why we’re still mired in fiction vs. fact. Very scary.

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