SEATTLE -- When Bill and Melinda Gates were casting around for a cause in the 1990s, the topic that first snagged their interest was birth control. Expanding the use of contraceptives and inventing new ones seemed like a sure bet to help the world's poor and slow population growth.
But the world's richest couple soon had second thoughts for their nascent foundation. Within a few years, they decided to shift the focus to saving children's lives in the developing world through vaccines and cures for deadly diseases.
Now, after more than 15 years, the Gateses are returning to their charitable roots in a big way.
Earlier this year, Melinda Gates announced that she intends to put birth control back on the international agenda by making it her signature issue and significantly boosting the foundation's investment. On Wednesday, the Gates Foundation and the British government will convene a summit of world leaders in London with the goal of raising $4 billion to make contraceptives available to an additional 120 million women in the poorest countries.
The move puts the Gates Foundation on a collision course with the Catholic Church and elements of the religious right. A Catholic herself, Melinda Gates is attempting to defuse the controversy by framing her crusade in terms of health and individual choice. In her travels around the world, she has said, reliable supplies of contraceptives are among the things poor women ask for most.
"We're not talking about abortion. We're not talking about population control," Melinda Gates said in the Berlin TEDxChange talk where she kicked off her initiative in April. "What I'm talking about is giving women the power to save their lives, to save their children's lives and to give their families the best possible future."
The foundation set up a website called No-Controversy.com, asking people to share personal stories about birth control and pledge support for the effort. Melinda Gates even appeared on Comedy Central's "Colbert Report" last month, laughing when faux-conservative Stephen Colbert warned against turning the Seattle foundation into a "slut factory."
Veterans of the birth-control wars agree the foundation could be in for a harsher brand of criticism than it has faced in the past.
The fear of becoming a target in America's culture wars was one of many reasons the foundation backed away from birth control in the early days, and some insiders remain justifiably worried about the PR fallout, said Steven Sinding, former director general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and one of a small cadre of experts who never stopped urging the Gates Foundation to take up the cause again.
Catholic blogs and anti-abortion websites like LifeSiteNews have already branded Melinda Gates a Judas to her faith and accused her of mounting a "blatant attack on Catholic sexual morality."
But given the wide support for birth control around the world, even among many Catholics, the foundation should be able to weather the storm as long it continues to make it clear it does not support abortion, said Duff Gillespie, a family-planning expert at Johns Hopkins University.
In her TED talk, Melinda Gates describes more emotional encounters with women in Africa, who often walk miles to the nearest clinic only to find the three-month injectable contraceptives they prefer are out of stock. She said she was particularly moved by a group of women at a Kenyan slum, one of whom said she wanted to avoid getting pregnant again in order to bring "every good thing" to her newborn.
The United Nations estimates more than 200 million women in the developing world want to avoid pregnancy but lack access to contraceptives.
The foundation estimates greater access to contraceptives could avert 50 million abortions between now and 2020.