Remember that time Hilary Clinton came to Canada and stirred the abortion and maternal health pot? Remember the awkward silence from then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon as he sat next to Clinton? The air must have been sucked out of his lungs as Clinton said,
“You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health and reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortions.”
Preach. A voice of reason in the wilderness.
Because what Stephen Harper’s Conservative Government deliberately ignored at the time, is that illegal and unsafe abortions are a major cause of maternal deaths around the globe. Taking a page from George W. Bush’s Global Gag Rule, which eliminated all funding to organizations working on reproductive rights, our democratically elected government willfully ignored the fact that a maternal health policy that doesn’t make provisions for safe abortions will ultimately fail women.
The statistics on unsafe abortions are staggering: in 2008, the World Health Organization reported 21.8 million unsafe, back-alley abortions, 47, 000 of whom died from the procedure. The following year, the Guttmacher Institute reported a maternal death toll at 70, 000 women; in 2010, 26, 000 women died of unsafe abortions on the African continent alone. Proportionately, botched abortions account for roughly 13% of global maternal deaths.
Back-alley abortion clinics, the killing fields of women.
And Harper’s maternal health agenda doesn’t end with that intentional omission. In 2013, the Harper government pledged $3 billion dollars at the G8 Summit, extending its pledge on maternal and child health to include the fight against sexual violence in conflicts and early child marriage. Noble, and much needed endeavours. BUT, both war rapes and forced and early child marriage have causal links to unwanted pregnancies and thus unsafe abortions — and when International Development Minister Christian Paradis was asked by a Canadian Press journalist about whether or not these funds would be used to provide abortion services, he answered (paraphrased):
Paradis said government policy will follow the same logic as that outlined when Canada announced $3-billion for maternal and child health at the 2010 G8 summit in Muskoka. At the time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said none of the those dollars would go toward abortion services because there were enough other worthy initiatives to support.
Worthy causes. So by reverse logic, a woman’s fundamental right to control her body is what? Unworthy? Especially after a rape, or a gang-rape at gunpoint? Or after a girl faces death while birthing a baby too large for her small body to deliver? *flips table*
The 2013 policy position was a departure from Canada’s 2010 position, when Margaret Biggs, then-head of the Canadian International Development Agency said that although Canada did not directly fund abortion programs, funding could go to agencies that provide referrals for abortion services.
At the time of the 2013 announcement on sexual violence, early childhood marriage and maternal health, NDP MP Jean Crowder said that the policy didn’t support Harper’s claims that maternal health is a priority. She added, “The women on the ground, the service providers on the ground, are in the best position to know what they should be doing.” And more critically, “This government is simply taking another run at its not-very-well-hidden approach to abortion services.”
In short, a nuance on the ‘Abortion-Is-Murder-But-Also-We-Won’t-Re-open-The-Abortion-Debate-in-Canada’ talking point.
As we head into tonight’s foreign policy debate at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre, let’s remember that denying women their rights, creating conditions (or refusing to act on the conditions) that lead to their deaths, and sometimes even outright criminalizing them at home and abroad have been the Harper Government’s default policy approach to its women woes.
To be sure, Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair discussed the Muskoka Initiative during the women’s issues exchange hosted by Up For Debate, with both leaders pledging to revise Canada’s commitment to include reproductive health and access to safe abortions. But none of our fearless leaders covered the issue during the foreign policy portion of the debate hosted by Macleans. Why were the lady folk missing from that first debate? After all, leaders talked Syria— but not the mass rapes of Syrian women? And during the French-language debate, leaders talked Syrian refugee crisis, but not about how refugee camps are hotbeds of sexual assaults and create the conditions under which families marry off their daughters at a very young age.
Can we count on women being an issue #upfordebate (pun *totally* intended) in the Munk exchanges? Aside from the electoral debates, here’s the bottom line: Canada cannot speak out against sexual violence and forced and child marriage while also denying women a recourse they might see as crucial to taking back agency of their bodies and their lives. If we’re really going to buckle down and get serious about making a dent in maternal health, we have to talk about access to safe abortions.
To be sure, this isn’t about cultural imperialism, whereby Canada pontificates, slamming its fist on the pulpit of righteousness and demanding that everyone love abortion. Canada could very well — and at the very least — support organizations that are leading the charge in getting birth control methods into the hands of women who need them the most. Canada could provide aid funding to organizations that support women’s reproductive rights, including the access to safe abortions. Canada could provide support to grassroots organizations in developing countries who are agitating for shifts in their own legal frameworks with the same access to safe and legal abortions.
We cannot improve maternal health unless women are granted the right to control what happens to their bodies — and that includes the right to choose. Global mortality and morbidity rates from unsafe abortions tell us that women around the world want and need access to safe abortions. They have already made that decision for themselves.
Women around the globe are dying for the right to choose — let’s not be part of their butchery.
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