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But population growth has continued to surge, with the United Nations estimating last year that the world’s population, long expected to stabilize, will instead keep growing. Population experts warn that developing countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, where fertility continues to be high and shortages of food and water are worsening, will face deteriorating conditions if family sizes do not shrink.
“Family planning kind of faded from the radar screen, and now it is coming back,” said John May, a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development and author of a book, World Population Policies: Their Origin, Evolution, and Impact.
“There is a realization from many different places that population issues are not going away,” he said.
The issue of family planning is fraught in the United States, where government assistance often gets caught up in political battles. Contraception has again become controversial this political season, though the United States remains a major donor.
The Gates Foundation and the British government are pressing the issue. About $4 billion is expected to be pledged at the London conference to provide family planning services to 120 million women from the world’s poorest countries over the next eight years.
“We hear time and again from women out in the field that they want the ability to plan their families,” said Gary Darmstadt, director of family health at the Gates Foundation, who spoke by telephone from London. “We felt we needed to shine a light back onto the importance of this issue and get the conversation going.”
Maternal deaths have declined dramatically since 1990, down by a third, according to the World Health Organization.
But about 16 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where fertility is still more than four children per woman, Mr. May said. The numbers of people are expected to more than triple in these places during this century, an issue that is urgent not only for their economies and environment, but also for the women themselves, who women’s rights advocates argue would benefit from more power to decide about bearing children.
The Lancet study, which the Gates Foundation financed, draws on maternal mortality and survey data from the United Nations and World Health Organization to estimate the annual number of maternal deaths in 172 countries and the share that could be preventable by the use of contraception.