Abortion soon to hit the G8 agenda

Just when Canada's Conservative government through it was doing OK conceding to contraceptives as part of its initiative for developing world maternal health care, Hillary Clinton comes to town and says abortion must also be on the agenda.

Don’t you just hate it when you are planning a party and some bossy guest starts wading in on how to run it? Well there’s a little of that going on with Canada’s conservative Prime Minister who, when he hosts the June G8 meeting, wants to make a big deal about preventing maternal mortality… but within a tightly conservative political agenda. And that’s a problem.

To be fair to Harper, he has backtracked on his initial illogical stance, which was to put forward an initiative on maternal mortality in poor countries but exclude contraception as an option.

That’s illogical because it is essentially a plan that gives primacy to those yet to be conceived over those who are likely to die in childbirth or soon after. In other words, by not paying for contraceptives that could prevent conception in the first place it risks the lives of the mothers who have already had many pregnancies, jeopardising their lives and those of the babies they do conceive. The number involved is about two million preventable deaths each year.

The initial plan when presented in Canada early last month sparked a huge uproar, forcing Harper to back down and include contraception programmes in his forthcoming maternal health initiative. He seemed to accept the evidence that fewer children not only impacts positively on the health of the mother, but also on that of her existing children and raises the standard of living for the whole family – especially if they are not left motherless.

Harper’s u-turn was at the time a direct contradiction of the stance his Foreign Minister was taking and quite knocked the wind out of the Minister’s sails.

It seems almost unbelievable that a Government, even one as conservative as Harper’s, would think that peddling the George Bush morality missives about there being no place for condoms in family-planning for the poor would be a winner at the G8 in Ottawa in a couple of months time.

However, there’s more, as there always is when it comes to politicians dictating on women’s health within budgets.

Condoms are reluctantly back on, so to speak, but abortion? No way.

That is until Hillary came to town and delivered an insight into the reception the Canadian maternal health mission may receive when put to the test at the G8.

Clinton may have been photographed in the Globe and Mail sucking on a maple taffy at the G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting this week, but there was nothing sweet in her message regarding what is essentially wealthy white men telling poor, mainly black or coloured women how to plan their families or manage their reproductive health.

Abortion must be included in any family planning initiative according to Madam Secretary of State, because women need safe, legal abortions. Too many die as a result of self-inflicted attempts at, or unsafe terminations. It is not rocket science to see that more contraception will lower the number of abortions, and if we’re talking condoms, they’ll impact for the good on the level of HIV Aids transmission as well.

Even rudimentary understanding of the practices in some cultures makes it clear that it is no use telling women to stop having more babies when so many of them are unable to avoid unplanned pregnancies for reasons including patriarchal attitudes and male dominance when it comes to sex. There is also the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war.

The message healthcare advocates – including Clinton – are pushing is that the lives of women are far more important than the votes of the anti-abortionists or the far-right in the West, where, should they so choose, women have access to contraception and safe and legal abortions. Very few die in childbirth because of complications associated with having had large numbers of pregnancies already, coupled with poor nutrition during pregnancy, and little or no post natal healthcare.

It is not about votes for Harper’s Conservatives, nor any other conservative political party. It is about reducing the death rates of women and their babies who should not be dying.

Harper’s initiative to help save the lives of women is laudable. He did well reversing his initial position on contraception even if it was in the face of a backlash, and he is to be commended for taking maternal health to the table of the most powerful nations in the world.

But he should be urged to remember it is about women who need access to family planning options, and like it or not, contraception and abortion are part of that. It is about choice, and if the wives, partners and daughters of male politicians, and female politicians themselves in the so-called developed countries can have that choice, who are they to deny it to those who cannot pay?

If there are objections on ‘moral’ grounds it only takes a few minutes of trawling through the sex scandals of various conservative (and liberal) politicians – and of course the Catholic Church, which actively preaches no tolerance of contraceptives – to realize that ‘morality’ is more than a little skewed these days, if it hasn’t always been.

That’s why sometimes when Hillary gets her bossy hat on, she does it for good reason. This time she will hopefully convince Harper & Co. to play midwife to a G8 programme with real, public policy choices for women. Hardly a spoiler for the upcoming Ottawa party.