UNITED NATIONS — International groups are planning to launch a worldwide effort on behalf of improved family health through population planning by trying to persuade Third World parents to space their children a few years apart.
"It's clear that in the next 10 years, the world is not going to have a lot of extra money for health programs," James P. Grant, executive director of the U.N. Children's Fund, told a news conference Wednesday. "This is a way to get major improvements without spending lots of money."
He estimated that infant deaths in the Third World could be cut in half if families could space births of their children further apart. He said the practice would also "dramatically reduce" the 500,000 yearly toll of childbirth-related deaths among women.
George Zeidenstein, president of the Population Council, a nonprofit agency funded by governments and private donors, said 14 million children younger than 5 die every year "because they are born too close together or to families that are already too large."
Zeidenstein said he, Grant and Dr. Hafis Sadik, executive director of the U.N. Fund for Population Activities, have been working with 11 other international health and population agencies to organize a conference on "Better Health for Women and Children through Family Planning" Oct. 5-9 in Nairobi.
Among the sponsors are the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the World Bank, the World Health Organization and the U.N. Development Program.
Despite the acceptance of family planning by nearly all governments in the last 30 years, said Jhoty Singh, spokesman for the Fund for Population Activities, two-thirds of couples who want to control or prevent pregnancy have no access to "safe contraception."
Breast feeding is still the most effective natural contraception in the developing world, Grant and Zeidenstein said. It carries the added advantage, they said, of providing better nutrition as well as antibodies enabling infants to resist disease.
"But the decrease in breast feeding in developing countries unfortunately means there must be more reliance on artificial contraception," Zeidenstein said.
None of the three experts discussed abortion as a means of limiting births. The Reagan Administration's opposition to abortion has blocked use of U.S. funds for family planning in any country where abortion is officially sanctioned.
A report prepared for the conference by the Population Council estimated that 40 million to 60 million illicit abortions take place every year worldwide, compared to about 35 million legal abortions.
"Practiced under medical control in the 20 weeks following conception, abortion carries less risk than pregnancy," the report said. "When it is illegal and therefore clandestine, it is often practiced under unhygienic and rudimentary conditions and the woman incurs great risks."
The report also emphasized the dangers incurred by women in developing countries where early marriage is traditional, citing a childbirth mortality-rate among Bangladesh women 15 to 19 twice that of the 20-24 age group. For mothers younger than 15, the death rate was five times the latter group. Even in the United States, the report said, the childbirth death rate for girls younger than 15 was three times the death rate of 20- to 24-year-olds.
Increased risk of pregnancy for women older than 35 was cited as another area where contraception can provide great health benefits.
"Among older women who already have numerous children, contraception could eliminate the greatest percentage of deaths linked to high-risk pregnancy," the report said.
Economic development history has shown that birth rates decline when parents feel confident their children will survive and high mortality no longer requires large families to ensure that some children will survive, Grant said.
"Family planning thus has a double effect," he said. "It brings healthier children and parents are thereby encouraged to practice family planning and reduce population growth."