Peter Belden’s epiphany came in the spring of his junior year at Palo Alto High School, when Ms. Mayo showed a film about population growth in her U.S. history class. As she turned the projector off and the classroom’s lights back on, a light bulb flipped on in Belden’s head as well.
“It just clicked for me that rapid population growth affected so many of the other issues I care about,” said Belden. “Until then, I’d been interested in various social and environmental issues, but seeing that movie convinced me that the ability to avoid an unwanted pregnancy affects both individuals and the planet. On the individual level, it may mean that a woman can finish school and that her children are less likely to grow up in poverty. But on a much larger scale, the ability to avoid an unwanted pregnancy also reduces population growth, which puts less pressure on the environment and creates fewer demands for limited resources. This affects whole communities and whole countries; it really affects the entire planet.”
Helping to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies has been Belden’s mission for nearly 20 years now. He has spent the past eight at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, where he is a program officer in the Global Development and Population Program and is approaching the end of his term. (All Hewlett Foundation Program Officers must leave the Foundation after eight years.)
Belden has also emerged as an enthusiastic champion of storytelling—women sharing their personal abortion experiences—as an effective means of reducing stigma and ultimately changing hearts and minds on abortion.
Tall and lanky with red hair and a constant smile, Belden is an expert on birth control methods like IUDs and implants. He is known in the field for evangelizing about opportunities such as increasing access to the most effective form of emergency contraception, the copper IUD. As a program officer, Belden has made grants to support a range of interventions—some of them quite experimental—aimed at reducing unplanned pregnancy. For example, one study seeks to evaluate whether the copper IUD can effectively prevent pregnancy for women who have had unprotected sex in the previous 5-14 days. This would be a major improvement over emergency contraceptive pills, which are effective only up to five days after unprotected sex. Another study grew out of the finding that some women said they would be more likely to use an IUD if they could remove it themselves when they wanted to start a family. The project is testing whether women are able to remove their own IUDs and whether that makes the method more attractive to potential users.
A recent Wall Street Journal article profiled a grant Belden initiated. The grant supports Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s efforts to encourage health centers to offer the copper IUD to women seeking the morning-after pill, also known as emergency contraception.
His portfolio includes a study, also mentioned in the New York Times, conducted by researcher Kate Cockrill at the University of California, San Francisco, in which 14 women’s book clubs each read a non-fiction book about women’s pregnancies. Cockrill found that reading the book inspired almost all of the women in the clubs who had had abortions to share their own experiences with abortion, and that hearing these women tell their stories made the others in that group more supportive of abortion.
Last year, another one of Belden’s grantees, Exhale, organized a bus tour in which volunteers traveled the country talking about their personal abortion experiences on college campuses and in churches, as a means of promoting conversation and understanding.
“We weren’t exactly sure what to expect,” said Exhale Executive Director Aspen Baker. “We agreed that whether it worked or not, we would at least learn something we didn’t know before. I think it’s fair to say that in terms of the turnout, the enthusiasm of the response, and the really full conversations and engagement between women that resulted from the tours, it far surpassed our expectations.
Belden’s work is informed by direct experience in family planning. Prior to joining the Foundation, he managed a Planned Parenthood health center in San Mateo, California.
“Once a week,” he recalled, “the center had drop-in hours for teens. Sometimes thirty would show up, but due to staffing and funding constraints, we could only serve half that number. So we’d give the other half condoms and ask them to come back another time, but without being able to really give them the more effective birth control many of them wanted. Or a woman might come in on another day and say ‘I want birth control pills,’ and we’d say ‘Great, here they are,’ and send her on her way. It’s good to be fast, but I now realize there is a better way. Women seeking the pill may not realize that there are safe and easy-to-use options, like IUDs and implants, that are much more effective than the pill. And a recent large study found that women are much more satisfied with their IUD than with the pill.”
Belden credits the film he saw in Ms. Mayo’s history class for sparking his interest in family planning. Immediately after class, he rushed up to Ms. Mayo, and with an earnestness available only to a 17-year-old, said. “I have heard my calling: I have to work on this.”
His suggestion at the time? A class project to install condom vending machines in the high school.
The high school principal would later tell his mother that they didn’t want to discourage him by responding with an immediate “no,” but school administrators also had serious reservations about selling condoms on campus. He persisted though, eventually arranging a meeting between school administrators and some condom vendors he had found.
“To me this was about improving health, helping teens stay in school. It was wholesome. The school might be on board with that,” Belden said. “But when the condom salespeople started talking, it was clear they were just after money. The conversation moved from health and staying in school, to money and sex—and my heart sank.”
The vending machine idea failed, but Belden was hooked. “One of the great things about the Hewlett Foundation is that we focus on goals and outcomes,” he said. “It’s not enough to just change a policy or deliver a program. What was the measureable impact? Did we actually change behavior?”
Said Exhale’s Baker of her work with him: “Were it not for Peter’s vision and almost single-minded focus on outcomes, I doubt we could have pulled the bus tour off. And that would be a tremendous loss not only to Exhale but to the field as a whole”
Watch a video Q&A with Peter