OTTAWA — Canada’s Conservative government has declared that its new foreign-aid initiative for maternal and infant health will contain no funding for abortions in the Third World.
After announcing the initiative three months ago as part of the G8 nations’ commitment to development in the Global South, the government has been attacked by opposition Liberals constantly because the plan excluded abortion.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even weighed in at a G8 meeting with the comment that abortions would save women from deaths during childbirth.
After sending mixed signals at first, the government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, remained silent until last week, when G8 health ministers were meeting in Halifax. There and in Parliament in Ottawa, the government announced, “Canada’s contribution to maternal and child health may include family planning; however, Canada’s contribution will not include funding abortion.”
Jessica Fletcher, spokeswoman for Health Minister Bev Oda, said the government left abortion out of the package because it wanted to concentrate its resources “where we believe we can have the most impact and save the lives of the most mothers and the most children.”
Now aid groups, who rallied on Parliament Hill last week to applaud the government’s initiative, are worried that the debate over abortion will kill the entire plan. Don Hutchinson, the director of the Centre for Faith and Public Life, an evangelical think tank, said his organization has been saying “cool it” to both pro-life champions and pro-abortion opponents of the maternal and child health initiative.
“What they risk doing by turning this into a debate over abortion is derailing an initiative with the potential of saving hundreds of thousands of lives,” he said.
But Hutchinson is clearly more critical of those pushing abortion. “It costs $3,500 to fund a safe abortion,” he said, “but only $50 to provide the medicines and vitamins to significantly improve a mother’s chances for a safe pregnancy.”
Canada’s plan for maternal and child health, which the other G8 countries are following, came about as a result of lobbying by aid agencies, said Hutchinson. None of those groups included abortions among the health services they wanted provided.
Liberal Member of Parliament Carolyn Bennett, who is the opposition critic in the Canadian House of Commons on health issues, contended abortion is necessary along with contraception as a family-planning tool.
“Seventy percent of maternal deaths come from unplanned pregnancies,” she told the Register. “The mothers are too young or too old; the babies are too close together or too many.”
After bearing 10 children, she added, mothers are more likely to suffer postpartum hemorrhaging.
The Liberals have already suffered an embarrassing defeat in the House of Commons over the issue, when four of their own MPs voted against a vote on the issue, while another dozen absented themselves.
Bennett said they would continue to raise the issue at public forums, conferences and committee meetings.
‘Important to Discuss’
Canada’s Supreme Court threw out its existing law restricting abortions in the 1970s; successive governments have done nothing to replace it. “The prevailing mantra, even among pro-life politicians in Canada, has always been that abortion is a toxic issue,” explained Joseph Ben Ami, director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Studies, an Ottawa-based conservative think tank.
The Liberals may have hoped to marginalize the Conservatives by making Canadians believe the government wanted to recriminalize abortion, starting with foreign aid.
“But the polling after the maternal foreign-aid issue hasn’t shown a drop for the government or a bump up for the Liberals,” Ben Ami said. “It may be that the abortion issue can now be discussed, which is only right and proper in a democracy. No policy issue should be taboo.”
Pollster Mario Conseco of Vancouver-based Angus Reid Strategies confirmed that “Canadians are of two minds on abortion.” While a majority is in favor of the status quo, “80% of the population is unaware that the status quo is that there are no restrictions on abortion at all.” While a majority is pro-abortion, said Conseco, a majority is also against public funding of abortion in most cases. Canadians want “to keep it legal; they just wouldn’t do it themselves,” said Conseco.
Given such ambivalence, he isn’t surprised that the issue hasn’t won any support for the Liberals or cost the Conservatives support.
Rod Bruinooge, an MP from Winnipeg and chairman of the interparty pro-life caucus, said Harper has “made it clear he will always exclude abortion from the policy agenda.”
However, Bruinooge has just introduced a private member’s bill to make it illegal to coerce or threaten a woman to have an abortion: “It’s important that this issue be discussed. We do a disservice to the nation if we don’t.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.