The Harper government has taken an illogical stance by refusing to include contraception in its well received initiative to reduce the death rates of mothers and babies in poor countries. Although studies show mortality rates grow for women who have too many children too close together, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon told a Commons committee that a new program being spearheaded by Canada "does not deal in any way, shape or form with family planning. Indeed the purpose of this is to be able to save lives."
By suggesting that contraception does not save lives, Mr. Cannon raises questions about whether he thinks it costs the lives of children who are never conceived. And this has worried health advocates who fear that the Conservative government is making some decisions that pander to the most religious element among the party's supporters, while overlooking the critical need for birth control for women around the world.
More than two million babies and mothers die each year in childbirth - 99 per cent of them in the developing world - and those tragedies have wider ripples when many other children are left motherless. Medical experts say virtually all these deaths are preventable, and the proof lies in the comparatively tiny number of women who die in childbirth in wealthy countries such as Canada.
A 2007 report by the Disease Control Priorities Project - funded by the World Bank and other groups to study health issues for policy-makers in developing countries - lists pregnancy planning as one of the "most effective and promising interventions" for reducing the death rates of mothers. The report said research shows women face a greater risk of death or disability depending on the frequency of pregnancies and the mother's age. Avoiding unplanned pregnancies could reduce maternal deaths by 20 per cent in developing countries, it said.
A problem of such complexity requires work on many fronts, including improved nutrition in pregnancy, better routine monitoring of expectant mothers, more access to medical care during labour and more postnatal follow-up care. There are clearly many challenges to tackle beyond birth control. But ignoring the fundamental problem of unplanned pregnancies leaves a curious and gaping hole in a worthy new program, even before Canada officially launches it at the G8 summit in June.
If Mr. Cannon's apparent opposition to birth control stems from a lack of information about the merits of contraception in reducing maternal death rates, it's time for him to research a line of argument he has chosen to champion. If, however, it stems from a fear of alienating a small base of extremely conservative voters who oppose birth control - or confuse the issue with a separate debate about abortion - this is an entirely unacceptable rationale for shaping an otherwise life-saving public policy.