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Ottawa commits to maternal health, but not safe abortion

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the opening of the Maternal Newborn and Child Health Summit in Toronto on May 28, 2014.

FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS

Prime Minister Stephen Harper opened a summit on maternal and child health with a call for renewed global funding to help vulnerable women and children, amid concerns that safe abortion and family planning have not received enough attention in the government's plan.

Mr. Harper said he would push to keep the health of mothers and children on the global development agenda after 2015, when Canada's current funding commitment expires. The three-day summit in Toronto is focused on global efforts to significantly reduce the number of mothers and children who die each year by improving access to vaccines, better nutrition and health care.

Speaking during a question-and-answer session with the leader of a Canadian non-governmental organization and the president of Tanzania on Wednesday, Mr. Harper said he first became involved in the issue because he believed focusing on children and mothers was both the right thing to do and could achieve important results.

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"We know what the interventions are that can greatly reduce maternal and child mortality," Mr. Harper said. "And with the right focus and concentration of efforts and accountability for resources, we believe we can make a real difference."

But while NGOs and opposition MPs say that important gains have been made, some are also concerned that Canada's decision to exclude funding for safe abortions is limiting the success the maternal and child-health initiative can have. They would also like to see more funding put into family planning, to help give women more control over how they space out pregnancies.

According to the World Health Organization, about 8 per cent of maternal deaths are caused by complications during an abortion.

Sandeep Prasad, who leads an NGO called Action Canada for Population and Development, said he hoped family planning and abortion would be broached by participants who are attending the three-day event, even though they are not on the formal agenda. "Family planning and safe abortion are things that women need, and it's certainly discriminatory that they are denied access to resources that they need," Mr. Prasad said.

NDP international development critic, Hélène Laverdière, who participated in a separate panel on Wednesday evening to discuss safe abortion, family planning and reproductive rights, said there has been a lot of good work on maternal and child health because of the initiative. "The only problem is that, basically for ideological reasons, there is a big gap."

International Development Minister Christian Paradis told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview that Canada has no plans to reverse its stand on restricting abortion funding, saying government money would remain focused on other maternal and child health priorities.

Despite investments by Canada and other countries, the world is not on track to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals on maternal and child health by next year, the targeted end date. World leaders had agreed to work on reducing maternal deaths by three-quarters and reducing the number of deaths of children under the age of five by two-thirds, using a baseline of 1990, but the figures for each have been reduced only by about half.

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Rosemary McCarney, head of Plan Canada and a co-ordinator for the Canadian Network for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, said during an event earlier on Wednesday that the world is reaching the "last mile" in improving maternal and child health but still has work left to do. NGOs are asking for an additional $3.25-billion commitment from Ottawa on maternal and child health, to run from 2015 to 2020.

The government has not yet said whether it will announce another funding commitment, but Mr. Harper hinted that Canada would continue to put maternal and child health at the centre of Canada's international development work.

Mr. Harper said one of Canada's interests will be doing more to collect accurate information about all children that are born. "Obviously it's a terrible tragedy when a mother dies in childbirth or a young child passes away," he said on Wednesday. "But what's even more shocking is when a child passes away and that child never really had an official existence at all."

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