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International affairs minister John Baird. (Jason Lee/Reuters)
International affairs minister John Baird. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

If Harper truly supports maternal health, foreign aid must include abortion Add to ...

It is at times hard not to fear for the future of our species. Often enough such times involve the quite unbelievable treatment of girls and women by those with power, mostly men. Here is one case study, beyond belief yet true.

In 2009, an ailing 9-year old girl in Brazil had to have an emergency abortion after a doctor discovered she was four months pregnant. The girl had been raped by her stepfather since she was 6.

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The Catholic Church then excommunicated the doctor who performed the abortion, his medical team, and the girl’s mother. The rapist was not excommunicated, even though the local archbishop acknowledged that he had committed “a heinous crime.” For the Church, he said, “the abortion, the elimination of an innocent life, was more serious.”

This past July, an 11-year old girl in Chile who became pregnant was denied an abortion. The girl had been violated repeatedly by her mother’s boyfriend for over two years. Chile is one of seven predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Latin America where abortion is forbidden under all circumstances. The 11-year old appeared on television to declare that she wanted to keep the baby. “I’m going to love the baby very much, even though it comes from that man who hurt me. It will be like having a doll in my arms.”

Across the U.S., Republican extremists who now dominate the party at both the national and state levels oppose abortion, often with no exceptions in case of rape or incest or health issues for either fetus or mother. They are introducing legislation to this effect in states across the U.S. as well as in Washington.

In Canada, the Harper government refuses to fund overseas projects that offer access to abortions to child brides or to victims of rape during war. This policy was first spelled out by the Prime Minister in 2010 when he announced his support for maternal and child health initiatives in poor countries, and it has been reaffirmed in recent weeks by his ministers.

In New York last month, Mr. Harper expressed Canada’s support for a range of United Nations initiatives to combat sexual violence and forced marriages. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird also travelled to New York to emphasize the government’s commitment to protecting women and children.

The practice of forced marriages of young girls is “an appalling violation of human rights,” Mr. Baird said, and Canada is committed to putting a stop to it. Millions of girls under 18 years old – some as young as eight – are forced into marriages each year in various parts of the world, including Canada. “I don’t think any nine or 11-year-old girl is in a position where she should be forced to marry at that young age.” This position was reiterated in this week’s Throne Speech.

Complications from pregnancy and giving birth at a young age are known to be grave risk factors for both mother and baby. In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that while real progress was being made in reducing maternal mortality, it nevertheless remains a serious global problem.

Unsafe abortion, it reported, is one of the three leading causes of maternal mortality, while safe abortions by trained health workers in sanitary conditions can prevent such deaths. According to WHO, providing access to such a service is one of the most effective ways to address this major problem.

There are two issues here. The first is entirely practical. If maternal and child health and the protection of women and children was really a priority for Mr. Harper and his government, if they truly wanted to save women from preventable agonizing deaths, they would be promoting safe abortions for pregnant underage girls and for pregnant women in cases of rape, incest or health issues.

The second is entirely human. “I don’t think any nine- or 11-year-old girl is in a position where she should be forced to marry at that young age,” Mr. Baird says. He calls it a human rights issue. But what if the nine- or 11-year-old girl then gets pregnant? Is she in a position where she should be forced to have a baby? Is she not entitled as a human right to an abortion? What level of cruelty is required to deny a child an abortion and force her to have a child? It makes you question our common humanity.

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