The fact that the world’s population continues to grow apace and will reach seven billion later this year presents numerous economic, developmental, environmental and social challenges. Many of these pressures can be effectively addressed by doing more to empower women and couples around the world to decide for themselves when to become pregnant and how many children to have, according to a new Guttmacher analysis.

“Especially in the developing world, millions of women and couples are still unable to control the timing, spacing and total number of the children they have because of the barriers they face to obtaining and using contraceptives,” says Susan Cohen, author of the analysis. “Recognizing this fact provides a road map for action that simultaneously addresses the needs of people and our planet.”

Previous Guttmacher research found that 215 million women in developing countries have an unmet need for contraception, meaning they want to stop or postpone childbearing, but are not using a modern contraceptive. These women account for more than 80% of all unintended pregnancies in the developing world each year.

Helping women and couples achieve their stated desire to have a smaller family would result in the world’s population peaking within the next few decades and then actually starting to decline. But, according to Cohen, getting there requires significantly increased political and financial commitment at the global level—with the ultimate goal of achieving universal access to reproductive health care for all women.

“The challenge goes beyond simply providing services to everyone who needs them. It is equally a matter of ensuring that the services are high quality,” says Cohen. “That means making available counseling and patient education, as well as better matching women with highly effective methods appropriate to their life circumstances—either methods available today or more advanced ones yet to be developed.”

Guttmacher research published earlier this year details the reasons why women living in three world regions—South Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia—who want to avoid pregnancy were not using a modern method of contraception. The authors found that women’s reasons for nonuse were often multiple and interrelated, and they identified several steps for overcoming the existing barriers—the most important being the development of new contraceptive technology that better meets women’s life circumstances.

Click here to read “The World at Seven Billion: Global Milestone a Reflection of Individual Needs,” by Susan A. Cohen