More than 100,000 women a year could be saved from dying prematurely simply by improving their access to family planning information and contraception, according to a new study.

The study appears in the British medical journal The Lancet, which has devoted all of this week’s issue to the topic of family planning.

The issue was released ahead of the London Summit on Family Planning, a major meeting hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that aims to bring together participants from across the world to discuss the rights of women and girls to access contraception.

The issue contains a study that shows that by simply helping women in developing countries access contraception, maternal mortality around the world could be cut by nearly a third.

The study, from researchers at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at John Hopkins University, looked at data from the United Nations and World Health Organization to estimate the annual number of maternal deaths in 172 countries.

It found that 342,000 women around the world died from pregnancy and child birth complications in 2008. But the study estimates that without contraception, that number would have been 1.8 times higher.

The authors also calculated that if all women who wanted birth control had been able to receive it, 29 per cent of those maternal deaths in 2008 could have been prevented.

Access to family planning has long been considered the single easiest way to prevent maternal deaths and improve the long-term potential of children.

Those who don’t have access to information on how to keep their family sizes smaller risk having pregnancies too early in life or too close together, both of which are known to substantially increase the risk of premature birth, maternal deaths and infant mortality.

The Lancet articles note that family planning as a global health issue has been neglected for decades, shunted aside in favour of such issues as AIDS and vaccinations.

But the articles note family planning has a crucial role to play if the world is going to meet the Millennium Development Goals for maternal health, eradication of poverty, education and gender equality.

The World Health Organization says maternal deaths have declined by a third since 1990, but the rate is still unacceptably high.

Every day, around 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Almost 99 per cent of maternal deaths occur in developing countries, with the rate highest for women living in rural areas, the WHO says.

The issue of family planning has long been a controversial one in many countries. Melinda Gates argued in a TED talk in April that birth control should not be controversial, because it improves the lives of poor women.

“Somewhere along the way we got confused by our own conversation and we stopped trying to save these lives,” she said.

“We’re not talking about abortion,” she added. “We’re not talking about population control. What I’m talking about is giving women the power to save their lives.”