According to the Scotsman newspaper, Third World women “face as great a risk of death in childbirth as British mothers-to-be 100 years ago.” That would be in 1910, before British doctors learned to wash their hands after handling cadavers, and long before British women enjoyed any degree of reproductive choice.
In developing countries, 450 women die per 100,000 births. In Canada, it’s less than one per 100,000. In Chad, it’s 1,500 per 100,000. In Niger, one woman in seven dies in childbirth. In its 2004 State of the World’s Mothers Report, Save the Children found that “Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in young women aged 15 to 19 in developing countries.”
In an article published by the Toronto Star, Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledges that these figures are “simply not acceptable” and promises that “Canada will champion a major (G8) initiative to improve the health of women and children in the world’s poorest regions.” This week, Canadians learned, birth control will play no part in that initiative.
A leading cause of death in childbirth, according to Save the Children, is that women bear too many children too close together. Without family planning, any women’s health initiative is doomed, if not to failure, then to a very limited and qualified success.
In his article, Harper says, “The solutions are not intrinsically expensive. The cost of clean water, inoculations and better nutrition, as well as the training of health workers to care for women and deliver babies, is within the reach of any country in the G8.” This is very true, but why exclude the even cheaper and more effective strategy of family planning?
A rather frightening answer suggests itself in the words of Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, who told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee this week that “(The G8 initiative) does not deal in any way, shape or form with family planning. Indeed, the purpose of this is to be able to save lives.”
Cannon cannot be unaware that reproductive choice would go a long way toward saving the lives of Third World mothers, 500,000 of whom die in childbirth each year. By implying a contradiction between family planning and saving lives, he’s playing to the most extreme right-wing Christian audience, those for whom the rights of mothers are superceded not only by the rights of the unborn, but by those of the unconceived.
Even the Bush administration, which played hell with family planning in developing countries by cutting off funding to any NGO that provided abortion services, realized that contraception was an essential element of maternal health. They often cut funding that would have provided condoms in AIDS-ravaged African countries, but it was never the condoms they were going after, it was the fact that the same institutions also provided abortions.
This was a deeply regressive attitude and put millions of lives at risk from AIDS and unwanted pregnancy, but the Harper government appears committed to taking a giant step farther backward. By pushing a multi-state initiative on women’s and children’s health that excludes family planning, Canada will be driving resources away from one of the critical building blocks of a successful strategy.
Already, under the Harper government, the Canadian International Development Agency has stopped funding the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which provides “sexual and reproductive health services” in over 170 countries. That’s $6 million worth of funding removed from one very effective provider of women’s health services.
If the Harper government was serious about health in developing countries it wouldn’t be playing political games with family planning. Women in poor countries need to be better able to choose the time and number of their pregnancies, just as they need access to clean water and better nutrition. Harper needs the support of his extremist social-conservative base. Which of these needs should Canada be addressing at the G8?
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.