Harper's G8 "maternal health" plan: 0 for 3 and counting - Macleans.ca

Harper’s G8 “maternal health” plan: 0 for 3 and counting

Is Harper’s plan compatible with other G8 countries’ policies? PAUL WELLS investigates


See, the thing about the Harper government’s plan to present a maternal and child health initiative at the G8 that wouldn’t include any provision for family planning (let us call it by its names: access to abortion and contraception) is that the Harper government would be presenting it at the G8. Which means that, if they are looking for anything but a fight, the Conservatives need to present a plan that would be compatible with the policies of other G8 countries.

So this morning I called around. Three G8 partners have responded so far: the U.S., the United Kingdom and the European Union (France, the UK, Italy and Germany all attend as individual G8 members and the European Commission kind of hangs around too). I’m waiting on another country to get back to me, but I’m struck by the uniform response of the first three: each declined to put up a government spokesperson or diplomat to speak directly to this morning’s Globe story, but each referred me to specific documents outlining their own policy on maternal and child health. And the documents they pointed to were… eloquent. Here’s the roundup:

United Kingdom

Through a spokesperson, the Brown government in London sent this comment:

“We welcome the focus Canada is placing on the Millennium Development Goals during its Chairmanship of the G8. The [British] PM in Parliament today said: “Five hundred thousand mothers die avoidable deaths each year… This is one of the policy themes of the G8 summit. It is important that we support whatever action can be taken. We as a Government are doing more than most to try to reduce this appalling level of suffering, which can be avoided.” We look forward to working with G8 partners at the Summit to ensure further progress is made towards meeting the MDG on maternal health.”

The spokesperson also directed me to a White Paper from 2009 and specified that the discussion beginning at Section 5.45 in particular would be germane. That section calls, in part, for “safe abortion services (where abortion is legal)” and “a rise by one-third in the number of contraceptive users.”

United States

If you Google the phrase “Global Gag Rule,” you’ll see that a policy very closely resembling the Harper/Cannon no-condoms-for-Africa doctrine has been a political ping-pong ball in the United States for a generation. Reagan implemented the rule and Bush 41 kept it in place. Clinton revoked it during his first week as President. Bush 43 re-introduced it during his first week as President. Obama re-revoked it during his first week as President.

Obama is still President.

Ambassador David Jacobson was travelling and unavailable for comment today. A U.S. government spokesperson told me, “USAID has been a leader in support for voluntary population planning in developing countries for four decades” and pointed me to these documents:

Barack Obama’s Ghana speech is the least specific, but talks about mothers dying in childbirth. This blog post by an advisor to UN Ambassador Susan Rice is more specific, with its call for “increased resources and access to women’s sexual and reproductive health services.” And this fact sheet from USAID (link loads a .pdf) breaks it all down for anyone who’s still confused:

Global Importance of Family Planning

• Saves lives of mothers and children: Births that are too close together, too early, or too late in a woman’s life decrease both the mother’s and the infant’s chances for survival. By helping women space births at least three years apart, bear children during their healthiest years, and avoid unplanned pregnancies, family planning could prevent 25 percent of maternal and child deaths in the developing world.

• Reduces abortion rates: Unintended pregnancy can result in abortion.An estimated 35 million abortions take place each year in the developing world.Wider availability of family planning programs could prevent many of these abortions.

• Important in fight against HIV/AIDS, particularly mother-to-child HIV transmission: Family planning allows HIV-positive women to space births for optimal health and contributes to programs providing voluntary counseling and testing and pre­ vention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) services. Family planning services also help reduce stigma, improve referral networks for HIV-related services, and prevent unintended pregnancy, HIV infection, and other sexually transmitted infec­tions.

I could go on. The fact sheet sure does. It dates from December, 2009 — three months ago.

• European Union

Again, nobody at the Delegation of the European Commission in Ottawa would comment on the Globe report, or offer anyone in Brussels to comment for the record. But a spokesman sent this note, which in some ways is the most specific of the three I’ve so far received:

The content of G8 initiatives is still under discussion. Initiatives will have to be agreed by all G8 leaders.

Initiatives will be, as always, in line with internationally agreed commitments, in this case the “Cairo declaration” (International conference on population and development, ICPD 1994), which binds all UN members.

This declaration includes all the necessary elements to promote responsible parenthood, counseling and family planning activities in support of the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs 4 and 5, and in accordance with national legislation.

(a) The links to ICPD Program of Action:

A summary of the ICPD Program of Action: http://www.unfpa.org/icpd/summary.cfm

The full text: http://www.unfpa.org/icpd/icpd-programme.cfm

(b) The link to the Millennium Development Goals: MDG 5 on Maternal Health. The second target under Millennium Development Goals 5 relates to universal access to reproductive health, including family planning. It is often referred to as the ‘unmet need’, pointing at the difference between the number of women who would like to avoid a pregnancy and the number of women having access to modern contraceptives. http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/maternal.shtml