Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Mr. Harper, 'maternal health' isn't very healthy without a choice

Is there some sort of treaty that says that at any given moment one country in North America must have a bad policy toward helping women in developing nations?

Right now, it looks as if no sooner did the Americans alter their Bush-era policy of not funding programs that provide birth control or abortion than Canada apparently decided that we'd start separating the wheat from the wheat and launch a maternal health program that excludes these same things.

Simply put, it isn't possible to separate the issue of women's health from the issues of birth control and abortion. Our uteruses won't allow it.

Story continues below advertisement

Women's bodies are complicated, sometimes messy creations, and motherhood, for all the lovely things it conjures up and often is, frequently involves difficult choices.

In Canada, we've long allowed women to make these medical choices, and it would be wrong to deny that right to women we're assisting in other countries.

It would be especially wrong to withhold any reproductive health options, legal in any given country, if by doing so a government were, say, attempting to export an ideology that would never be accepted domestically, in order to maintain their conservative brand at home, thus reassuring their base.

I'm just putting that out there.

Any government looking to score women's votes, thinking that "maternal health" was a phrase that would instantly warm women's hearts, should reconsider. We're a diverse group.

Calling what's essentially a woman's health initiative a maternal health initiative doesn't avoid the issues of abortion and birth control, because mothers themselves can't avoid these issues.

While reducing the mortality rate for women giving birth and their babies is a laudable goal, if a woman must then give birth say 18 or 19 more times during her lifetime, that's a health issue.

Story continues below advertisement

And if a woman were to choose to have an illegal abortion, over even exemplary maternal care, and in doing so were to become one of the 68,000 women that the World Health Organization estimates dies every year of that cause, the health of any children she may already have would suffer.

Michael Ignatieff was criticized for "politicizing" the government's program by asking whether it would include funding for "reproductive health services," but I applaud him for taking an unequivocal position here. It's unusual these days to hear a politician take a stand on something other than hockey, our troops and the laughter of innocent children.

Beyond the peevish response of Stephen Harper's spokesman, Dimitri Soudas - "This has nothing to do with abortion, or gay marriage or capital punishment" (or Johnny Weir's short program, either, I guess) - there has been little clarification forthcoming.

Oh, except for an interview with Embassy magazine last week in which International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said that "it's the lives of mothers and babies that we are focused on" and that therefore the program would not support access to family planning. So Mr. Ignatieff was right to inquire.

"It's important to remember there are simple necessities ... clean water, nutrition, inoculations, trained health-care officials," Manitoba Conservative Shelly Glover told the CBC's Evan Solomon.

Her statement suggests that the program is taking a broad, holistic approach that still explicitly excludes abortion and contraception. Why?

Story continues below advertisement

Canada has a long-standing policy of helping to provide these services. Canadians should know if this new program represents a change in that policy - whether birth control will be excluded from all maternal-health programs, and whether such an exclusion would extend to condom distribution.

Saskatoon Conservative MP Brad Trost has a petition demanding that the Canadian International Development Agency stop funding International Planned Parenthood because it provides abortion services. Is that going to occur?

In 2006, I attended the World HIV/AIDS conference in Toronto. I met with people running the programs who had been nominated for the Red Ribbon Award, which recognizes outstanding community leadership that has helped curtail the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS. The programs had diverse approaches, but they had one thing in common: They were all in constant danger of losing their funding because of policy changes in the countries they relied upon.

These people worked in their communities, saving or improving lives, knowing that at any moment, someone somewhere might decide that, for example, funding a program that distributes condoms to truck-stop prostitutes in West Africa reflects poorly on their department and stop funding it.

When that happens, an established, honed program vanishes. Lives are put back at risk.

Has something similar been set in motion here? Maybe. Maybe not. But it's a fair question.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to