Last month, former Senate Majority Leader and Nashville political celebrity Dr. Bill Frist announced a coalition with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aimed at improving maternal, newborn and child health in developing nations around the world.
In the weeks since, Frist has been advocating for the campaign, including a recent Time article where he explained that infant and maternal mortality plummet when women delay their first pregnancy to age 18 and space their pregnancies by at least three years.
How does Frist suggest women in developing nations accomplish such a feat? Perhaps through abstinence-only education, as we instruct our own young women here in Tennessee? Shockingly, no. With contraception, of course.
"The definition I use is enabling women and couples to determine the number of pregnancies and their timing, and equipping women to use voluntary methods for preventing pregnancy, not including abortion, that are harmonious with their values and beliefs," Frist wrote.
That's right — a Republican with a not-completely-insane, actually-really-good plan for dropping the rates of both infant mortality and abortion. Indeed, the title of his Time piece is "Contraception is a pro-life cause in developing world."
"Through fertility-awareness methods (sometimes called natural family planning) or modern contraceptive tools," Frist said, mothers have planned pregnancies, which tend to be healthier overall, and babies are more likely to survive childbirth and their first years of life.
This is a legitimately great plan, and I wholeheartedly salute the effort. It's fantastic, medically-sound advice for preventing both infant death and unintended pregnancies, which is exactly how any anti-abortion argument should start and end.
My question is this: Why not here, Dr. Frist? Tennessee had the third-highest rate of infant mortality in the United States in 2010, according to the most recent nationwide data, topped only by Mississippi and Alabama. And by 2012, when the last statewide infant mortality data was released, the rate had only dropped by 0.67 percent.
And at the exact same time Frist and the Gates were kicking off their efforts to bring contraception and sexual education to developing nations, Tennessee's own legislators were busy condemning the University of Tennessee's Sex Week, a not-so-dissimilar effort to bring comprehensive, accurate sexual information to young adults.
Basically, the state is so content with having subpar sexual education, despite making all kinds of fun top-ten lists (Infant mortality! Teen pregnancy!), that our legislators have the audacity to put the kibosh on sex ed at UTK and our only political leader with an idea worth a damn is taking it to sub-Saharan Africa.
If conservative Tennesseans truly want to reduce the number of abortions, maybe they should take a page out of Dr. Frist's playbook. And if the state as a whole wants to avoid further Daily Show-like ridicule, we have got to force some factual, medically accurate information into our public health policies.