Hélène Laverdière is the NDP MP for Laurier-Sainte-Marie in Quebec and Niki Ashton is the NDP MP for Churchill in Manitoba.
This week, Canada will host an international summit on maternal, newborn and child health, following from the 2010 G8 Muskoka Initiative. Canada’s goal of saving the lives of women and children across the world is laudable. However, to be truly effective, our efforts must address the most easily preventable and treatable cause of maternal death: unsafe abortion.
Knitting needles, sticks, chicken bones and pens are just some of the crude instruments being used to terminate unwanted pregnancies around the world. Each year, 47,000 women die and millions more suffer permanent damage from unsafe abortions worldwide. In 2012, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights produced a report of its inquiry into violations of sexual and reproductive health. It found that unsafe abortions are still responsible for 35 to 50 per cent of maternal deaths in that country – despite easing restrictions on abortion.
Canada has positioned itself to lead the international community on maternal health, but we are behind, not in front, of many of our international partners. One of U.S. President Barack Obama’s first actions in office was to rescind an executive order – dubbed the “global gag rule” – which denied non-governmental organizations federal funding for the provision of safe abortion services abroad. Other countries like the UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland are increasingly funding projects to increase accessibility to abortion in the developing world. Canada’s positioning has not gone unnoticed.
In 2010, as controversy swirled around Canada’s G8 initiative on maternal and child health, then-U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton stated that “you cannot have maternal health without reproductive health, and that includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortions.” The renowned medical journal The Lancet wrote an editorial criticizing the Canadian government for its hypocritical approach to abortion contrasting Canada’s domestic position with that of its refusal to fund NGOs who perform or advocate safe abortion. It further stated that Canada – along with the other G8 countries – should show leadership with a “maternal health plan that is based on sound scientific evidence and not prejudice.”
But after missed steps and mixed messages, former international co-operation minister Bev Oda confirmed that the Conservatives would not fund international work related to access to safe abortions under any circumstances – a policy that remains in effect.
So in the end, Prime Minister Harper’s signature G8 Muskoka Initiative excluded what experts recognize as the most easily preventable and treatable cause of maternal death. The Conservatives effectively have borrowed the global gag rule from presidents Reagan, Bush and the American right.
Access to safe abortion doesn’t just save lives. The evidence is irrefutable – women and girls who have access to the full range of family planning services are healthier, better educated and contribute more to their national economies and societies. Canada needs to lead with a comprehensive approach to gender equality that is evidence-based and centered on empowering women and girls.
For New Democrats, access to safe abortion is a human right. We know that family planning and reproductive choice play a crucial role in the well-being of women. Women who have access to the full range of family planning options are empowered to make better decisions about caring for their family. It also gives women an opportunity to realize their full potential by allowing them to fully participate in their economies and communities.
Of course, access to safe and legal abortion is not the only piece of the puzzle. Many non-governmental and international organizations have been working tirelessly to train health personnel, expand access to prenatal and post natal care, improve basic nutrition, teach sexual education, and increase access to family planning. The 70 Canadian organizations engaged in the Canadian Network for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health are engaged in over a thousand regions of the world and are playing a leading role in improving maternal, child and newborn health around the world. They should be commended for their excellent work.
But unless Canada’s approach addresses all the causes of maternal death and empowers women to advocate for and access the full range of their rights, our efforts will not be successful in achieving the desired goal. As world leaders and experts gather in Toronto at the end of the month it is imperative that access to safe abortion is on the Summit’s agenda.
Women and girls deserve no less.