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International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda at the G8 summit in Halifax on Monday. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda at the G8 summit in Halifax on Monday. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Judith Timson on health

Ottawa to refuse abortion funding? Not in my name Add to ...

Here is a political question that for me, just won't go away: In exactly whose name has the Harper government decided to withhold funds for access to safe abortion in their international maternal and child health initiative?

Not in my name. And not in the names of countless Canadians who have relied for years on safe access to the procedure at government expense.

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The government's decision has made what should have been international apple pie - a widely applauded global health initiative for women and children - into a political hot potato, not only reviving the endlessly divisive abortion debate, but threatening to have it play out, as one concerned director of an international aid foundation told me, "on the backs of African women and children."

There's something fundamentally high-handed about a minority government deciding it won't offer women overseas the same rights they have here. It's like a new version of NIMBY (not in my backyard) only it's the colonial version: NITBY (not in their backyard).

There has been sharp criticism of the Harper government's odd handling of this issue across the political spectrum.

An editorial in the Toronto Star recently noted that a teenage girl raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo would not be so fortunate as a Canadian teen: "Harper may personally oppose abortion, as have other prime ministers before him. But they never dared to impose those views on Canadians. So why would they use their financial muscle to deprive impoverished Africans of the same standard of care available to people here?"

And the National Post's Don Martin inveighed this week against the government's "selective sense of morality."

"What started as a dream initiative is becoming a policy nightmare for Mr. Harper," Mr. Martin wrote.

Two cabinet ministers have tried to explain - and none too clearly - the government's intentions. First came Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, who, this past March, floated the preposterous idea that Canada's global attempt to help mothers and children would "not deal in any way, shape or form with family planning."

Well, he got shot down almost immediately by the Prime Minister himself, who recognized that political blunder and stepped forward to say that okay, yes, there would be "some" family planning included in the G-8 initiative. Throw them some condoms!

Next up: Bev Oda. Is it just me or does Ms. Oda talk in impenetrable circles? Her statements this week at the G-8 meeting in Halifax were almost Orwellian as she insisted that the Canadian position was in sync with the other countries, when both Britain and the United States have made it clear that their programs include funding for access to abortion.

Of course, the health initiative received unanimous support from the G-8 development ministers. It's not the G-8's problem that we're having an internal debate about one aspect of a worthwhile program.

No, it's solely up to Canadians to deal with the glaring hypocrisy and paternalism of their government's stance. While we're at it, we should also notice how the issue of abortion is being stealthily revived in this country, despite the Prime Minister's declaration that Canadians have "no appetite" for the debate.

During Harper's tenure, two Conservative MPs have introduced private members bills designed to erode full access to abortion. First it was the "Unborn Victims of Crime Act" tabled by Ken Epp (Edmonton Sherwood). And recently there was a bill introduced by Winnipeg South Conservative Rod Bruinooge, chair of the parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus, that would make it illegal to "coerce" someone to have an abortion. (Well then, shouldn't it also be illegal to "coerce" anyone to go forward with an unwanted pregnancy?)

A year ago, Mr. Bruinooge, an Evangelical activist, stood on Parliament Hill and explained that thousands were attending an anti-abortion rally because "here in Canada, we haven't dealt with this issue in our House of Commons." (In 1988, abortion became an issue between a woman and her doctor after legislation was struck down by the Supreme Court.)

Is that really what we want - to deal with abortion again ? Although there has been a slight drop in the number of Canadians supporting full access to abortion, polls show a majority still support it.

So if we don't want to have another searing debate on the subject, what exactly do we do when our government declares, on our behalf, that it won't help women in developing countries have the same standard of care that we do, and access to a procedure that may well save their lives?

At the end of that G-8 meeting, Ms. Oda seemed to go out of her way to re-emphasize the government's position: "So I just want to clarify: Family planning does not include abortion." Why would she do that, if the Prime Minister wants this debate to go away?

Well, if Bev Oda can "clarify" her position then I will clarify mine: For me and many others, family planning does include abortion. However torturous an ensuing debate, this is clearly a moment that matters in the history of abortion rights in this country. The Conservative government, in a moment of political pandering, has made it matter.

The next question is, what to do?

 

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