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(Bill Grimshaw)
(Bill Grimshaw)

Neil Reynolds

Michael Ignatieff is playing politics with women's lives Add to ...

How low can you go? Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff will surely come to regret his comments the other day on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's commitment to champion, as a G7 initiative, maternal health care in impoverished countries. Mr. Ignatieff expressed concern that Mr. Harper would use the funds to make it harder for poor women to get abortions - with appalling consequences. "We don't want to have women dying because of botched procedures," Mr. Ignatieff said, implicitly suggesting that Mr. Harper does. "We don't want to have women dying in misery."

This rhetorical construct was more than an egregious slur. It was counterproductive politics. Mr. Ignatieff was correct when he cited a "Canadian consensus" on a woman's right to abortion. But this consensus is qualified. Polling by Environics for LifeCanada has shown that roughly 30 per cent of Canadians believe human life begins at birth, 30 per cent believe it begins at conception and 30 per cent believe it begins in between. And Canadians know that - in the absence of federal legislation - the publicly funded medical profession itself restricts access to abortion (as it should). In smearing Mr. Harper, Mr. Ignatieff smears millions of people who have reservations about unrestricted abortion.

Mr. Ignatieff's political purpose was reportedly to appease his base, 50 of whom were on hand to applaud his verbal excesses. Simply put, he said Mr. Harper, placing personal beliefs above public responsibility, was all set to deny Canadian funding to abortion-advocacy organizations that operate in poor countries. Yet, even if this were so, it is a leap to conclude that Canadian funds would be better spent by abortion-advocacy groups than by other humanitarian agencies. There is more need for maternal-care assistance, after all, than Canada can ever meet.

Haiti is an extreme reference. The Caribbean country's criminal code prohibits abortions. Under the judicial principle of necessity, though, abortions are relatively common. By some estimates, 7 per cent of Haitian pregnancies end in abortion. In pre-quake days, condoms, contraceptive pills and abortifacients (herbal and pharmaceutical) were widely available. The same dichotomy - with abortion restricted in law but permitted in practice - exists in many poor countries, reflecting Canadian ethicist Margaret Somerville's conviction that abortion, though repugnant, should not be impeded in the early weeks of pregnancy.

But hard questions remain - and Mr. Ignatieff's answers aren't obvious. Would he distribute as much food and medicine as he possibly could? Or would he invest in do-it-yourself abortion kits? How much funding would he give to the various abortion-rights organizations? In which countries? With what consequences? Applying Mr. Ignatieff's own rhetorical construct, would his diversion of funds result in the death of another mother and child? One set of choices here is humanitarian. The other can be ideological.

Within days of the quake, The Washington Times reported that abortion-rights groups had launched a major fundraising drive in the U.S. to finance "reproductive choice" in Haiti. On one level, you can understand why. One cannot imagine a worse place on Earth to give birth. But in a place where suffering exceeds relief, do you not necessarily help the living first?

Here at home, though, we're dealing not with life-and-death conundrums but, instead, with political manipulations. Mr. Ignatieff erred in attributing callous consequences to a hypothetical action - then proceeded to make the funding of abortion-advocacy organizations more important than the funding of impoverished mothers and children.

Canada must invest, he said unequivocally, "in the full gamut of reproductive health services." Perhaps for emphasis, he repeated himself: "Women are entitled to the full gamut of reproductive health services." With this clarion call, Mr. Ignatieff made the campaign for abortion on demand a prerequisite for Canada's humanitarian work abroad.

He wasn't speaking of Canada. We already have the full gamut. He was speaking of poor countries that restrict abortions, however symbolically. With few exceptions (Cuba, North Korea, China), the poorest of countries all discourage abortion - some by constitutional assertion. The Philippines, for example, requires the state to provide equal protection for the life of the mother and the life of the unborn child. In which poor countries would Mr. Ignatieff require that our foreign aid fund the promotion of the "full gamut" of reproductive choice? In all of them?

By repeated references to the "full gamut" of reproductive health services, Mr. Ignatieff presumably also refers to abortion on demand in all trimesters - because, by definition, it is the only set of abortion rights that eliminates all restrictions. By this standard, Canada must fund abortion-advocacy organizations throughout the world, in rich and poor countries alike. Why? Because none of us want to cause a woman to die in misery - as Mr. Ignatieff himself, in a moment of extreme politics, so vividly put it.

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