How not to count the health benefits of family planning

Journal of Medical Ethics 1:1-4 (2021)
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Several influential organisations have attempted to quantify the costs and benefits of expanding access to interventions-like contraceptives-that are expected to decrease the number of pregnancies. Such health economic evaluations can be invaluable to those making decisions about how to allocate scarce resources for health. Yet how the benefits should be measured depends on controversial value judgments. One such value judgment is found in recent analyses from the Disease Control Priority Network (DCPN) and the Study Group for the Global Investment Framework for Women's and Children's Health. Noting the decrease in the number of pregnancies expected to result from providing access to family planning, DCPN and the Study Group claim that a substantial benefit of such interventions is averting the stillbirths and child deaths that would have resulted from those pregnancies. We argue that health economic analyses should not count such averted deaths as benefits in the same way as saved lives. First, by counting averted stillbirths and child deaths as a benefit but not counting as a cost the lives of babies who survive, DCPN and the Study Group implicitly commit themselves to antinatalism. Second, this method for calculating the benefits of family planning interventions implies that infertility treatments are harmful. Determining how potential people should be treated in health economic analyses will require grappling with population ethics.

Author Profiles

Jacob Zionts
Georgetown University
Joseph Millum
University of St. Andrews


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