Canada’s Prime Minister and Incongruence of the Universality of Access to Reproductive Technology

Stephen Harper’s statement of intention and commitment

January 29th, 2010, Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, in a speech to the G-8 in Davos, Switzerland, spoke these words:

“It concerns the link between poverty and the appalling mortality among mothers and small children in the Third World.  Did you know that every year over half a million women die in pregnancy and nearly nine million children die before their fifth birthday?

The numbers should shock and grieve us.  Far too many lives and futures have been lost.  And to the world’s shame, so many have been lost for want of relatively simple health solutions, all well within reach of the international community.  Often the keys of life are no more sophisticated than clean water or the most basic treatment against infection.  That so little has been done is tragic.  It is not just words on a page.  It is real hunger, real suffering, real people dying.

Canada takes its development commitments seriously, including those made at the G-8.  That, for example, is why we have doubled aid to Africa and are on track with our commitment to double our international assistance this year.

So what is required to fight this particular problem of human misery?  It is merely the same unity of purpose that we can find within ourselves readily enough when disaster strikes, as it recently did in Haiti.  Or, as we can and do, when the problem is one of trade, finance or the economy.  We must find that unity of purpose.

That is why, as president of the G-8, Canada will champion a major initiative to improve the health of women and children in the world’s most vulnerable regions.  There are indications that other members of the G-8 share our concern and would be receptive to such a proposal.  It is therefore time to mobilize our friends and partners to do something for those who can do little for themselves, to replace grand good intentions with substantive acts of human good will.”

Canada’s Minister for International Co-operation, Bev Oda, opened a two day meeting in Halifax on Tuesday, April 27th with this statement:

“At the upcoming G-8 Leaders’ Summit, Canada will champion an initiative to increase the number of healthy pregnancies, healthy mothers and healthy children.

We will be looking at a wide range of interventions across the continuum of care, that I will be discussing with my G8 colleagues, including pre-pregnancy, safe births, and family planning, as well as training and support for frontline health workers; better nutrition and provision of micronutrients; treatment and prevention of diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria and sepsis; screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS; proper medication; family planning; immunization; clean water and sanitation.

The Government of Canada agrees with the internationally-accepted definition of family planning, as agreed to by the World Health Organization, UN and G8 development agencies.   This includes a woman’s ability to space and limit her pregnancies, which has a direct impact on her health and well-being, as well as on the outcome of each pregnancy.

Within the scope of this G-8 initiative, countries will be able to identify their own priorities. Canada’s contribution to maternal and child health may involve various interventions, including family planning, which includes the use of contraceptive methods. The details remain to be determined. However, Canada’s contribution will not include funding abortion.

Our work ahead for this G8 development meeting is:

  • to reach a consensus on a G8 initiative to save the lives of millions of mothers and children under the age of five;
  • to continue our work to meet the challenge of food security; and
  • to do so effectively, sustainably and accountably.

Thank you.”

The night before her address of the meeting, Minister Oda let the ‘cat out of  the bag’ on whether or not abortion would be included in the Canadian led ‘mission’ after months of speculation from within Canada about the issue.  She deflected the criticisms of the government’s position being contrary to the expectations of the other nations within the G-8, stating that she had met with other development ministers in Washington and New York and “They all support Canada’s initiative. There is no division on what it includes.”

Is Stephen Harper countermanding the international definition of family planning?

The definition of family planning according to the World Health Organization is:

“Family planning allows individuals and couples to anticipate and attain their desired number of children and the spacing and timing of their births. It is achieved through use of contraceptive methods and the treatment of involuntary infertility. A woman’s ability to space and limit her pregnancies has a direct impact on her health and well-being as well as on the outcome of each pregnancy.”

The United Nations Population Fund, the development agency set up to monitor and promote family planning under the United Nations flag states in its practices statement (http://www.unfpa.org/rights/practice.htm):

“UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, is an international development agency that promotes the right of every woman, man and child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity. UNFPA supports countries in using population data for policies and programmes to reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV/AIDS, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.

The human rights-based approach to programming addresses development complexities and humanitarian assistance holistically. It takes into consideration the connections between individuals and the systems of power or influence and endeavors to create dynamics of accountability.

The human rights-based approach is concerned not just with outcomes but also with the process by which outcomes are achieved. It requires that all stakeholders be included. It recognizes that people are actors in their own development, rather than passive recipients of commodities and services. Informing, educating and empowering stakeholders is key. Participation is central, as both a means and an end, not only to ensure ownership, but also to guarantee continuity.

This is a two-way street: individuals and communities need to be fully informed about their rights and to participate in decisions that affect them. Governments and other duty bearers often need assistance to develop the capacity, the resources and the political will to fulfill their commitments to human rights. “

In regards to Oda’s statement that the other G-8 countries are onside with the Canadian position, there is evidence that at least one of the G-8 partners is not. Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, while on a visit to Canada, last month stated, “you cannot have maternal health without reproductive health and reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortions.”

Does it matter that Stephen Harper will not allow Canadian abortion funding under the Initiative?

In an article written by Susan A. Cohen in the Guttmacher Policy Review (Facts and Consequences: Legality, Incidence and Safety of Abortion Worldwide: Fall 2009, Vol 12, No 4) she gives a overview of the global situation in regards to abortion.

Source: Guttmacher Institute, 2009

“Of the approximately 42 million abortions that do occur worldwide, almost half are performed by unskilled individuals, in environments that do not meet minimum medical standards or both. Virtually all of these unsafe abortions take place in the developing world, where the unmet need for contraception remains high and very restrictive abortion laws often are the norm.

In the developed and developing world alike, antiabortion advocates and policymakers refuse to acknowledge the facts that abortion’s legal status has much less to do with how often it occurs than with whether or not it is safe, and that the surest way to actually reduce the incidence of abortion is to reduce the incidence of unintended pregnancy.”

She further states that “In a country such as Uganda, about 300,000 abortions take place each year, notwithstanding the fact that abortion is legal only to save a woman’s life. Unsafe abortion there is a leading cause of pregnancy-related death. Moreover, at current rates, half of all Ugandan women will require treatment for complications related to abortion at some point in their lives…The fact is,  almost all unsafe abortions occur in the developing world (see chart). According to the World Health Organization, unsafe abortion is the cause of 70,000 maternal deaths each year—or one in eight pregnancy-related deaths among women. That translates to seven women per hour. Approximately eight million more women per year suffer post abortion complications that can lead to short- or long-term consequences, including anemia, prolonged weakness, chronic inflammation of the reproductive tract and secondary infertility. Of the women who experience serious complications each year, nearly three million never receive treatment.”

If Stephen Harper and the Conservative government wish to make a positive impact with leadership on the child and maternal health initiative by the G-8, then it would be unreasonable to discount the fact that abortions take place whether they personally are against it or not. If the true intention of the initiative is on maternal health, reproductive health; including abortions; cannot be over looked. To do otherwise is akin to pronouncing that will, have, had, gotten sick, damaged or died because of an unsafe abortion do not count.

Does Stephen Harper speak for Canada?

Canada does not have an abortion law that is applied across the nation. The accessibility to abortions is a provincial jurisdiction as is the regulation of those abortions.  The federal government has made several attempts at creating a law though these have been defeated with Supreme Court challenges to them (the last one was in 1989 but the Canadian Senate defeated the restrictive law after a 20 year old student bled to death trying to perform an abortion on herself).  Rather than re-introduce another abortion bill, the federal Conservative government of the time chose to let the abortion matter drop.  Governments that have followed have also chosen not to introduce any federal legislation on abortion, which in effect means that Canada does not have an abortion law in place.

Angus Reid, an opinion polling company, released the results of their poll on abortion opinions January 15, 2010 for a poll of 1002 Canadians during January 8 and 10th,2010.  Admittedly the sample is small, but Angus Reid felt that this was a fairly accurate measure of the Canadian feelings on abortion in general. Their key findings were that 40% of those contacted believed that there should be no restrictions for abortions, 31% believed in some restrictions, while 79% responded that women should be given information on alternatives to abortion. The poll also supplied that 59% of the respondents did not believe that the legality of abortion should be re-examined by the federal government.

The exclusion of abortion as a reproductive health tool is not the position of the Canadian government – it is the Conservative Party of Canada’s position. It is a party who has a minority leadership position in parliament that allows them to tread the fine line between being the government and being the opposition. For a party to exclude a practice because of its leadership’s beliefs in funding schemata to other nations while the practice is legal in their own nation creates hypocrisy and the impression of back door strong arming of other countries to follow a model that is not reflective of choices afforded to the women of Canada. It could be said that the Canadian federal government does not fund abortions, therefore Stephen Harper is acting congruent with the statement that Canada will not participate in the funding of abortions in the G-8 initiative.  Funding for abortions is done on a provincial basis.  However, the monies come from federal transfer payments and allocated to the various provincial health departments.  While there may be no direct funding, the Canadian federal government indirectly supplies the funds for the abortion procedure. Unless the G-8 initiative guidelines stipulates that each country specifies the amount and  where the funding is to be spent,  Harper cannot rationalize the forfeit of funds in certain areas over the expenditure of others.

This is not an argument of whether abortion is morally right or wrong, this is an argument on whether or not ruling parties of foreign governments can force limitations on other nations contrary to their own country’s status quo.  In this, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is not the representative of the Canadian government, but the leader of the governing party that has an opposing viewpoint to the official Canadian position. If Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party cannot reflect equality on the legal options available to Canadian citizens in its foreign and international dealings, then Stephen Harper should step aside and allow another government representative to take the forefront on the issues of child and maternal health who does not allow personal beliefs to  interfere in accessing all available options.