“The Canadian government should refrain from advancing the failed right-wing ideologies previously imposed by the George W. Bush administration in the United States, which made humanitarian assistance conditional upon a ‘global gag rule’ that required all non-governmental organizations receiving federal funding to refrain from promoting medically-sound family planning,” said the Canadian Liberal Party about the country’s Conservative government in a Parliamentary motion last week
Though Prime Minister Stephen Harper had pledged to include a voluntary family planning initiative in Canada’s foreign aid plan at last year’s G8 meeting in Italy, the Conservative government recently said that the initiative will not be part of its G8 plan at the upcoming meeting in Canada this June.
This move has surprised both Canadians and Americans. U.S. President Obama overturned the Mexico City policy last year, and has fully supported the inclusion of family planning methods as part of foreign aid.
Harper’s government has maintained that maternal and child health services, such as vaccinations and nutrition, will be a priority, but various components of family planning, including birth control and abortion, will not be included in the Canadian initiative.
The Tories, as along with three Liberal MPs, voted down the Liberal motion 138-144, which requested clarification of Harper’s maternal health initiative and pushed for the inclusion of the full range of family planning options. The Tories focused solely on what they called “anti-American rhetoric” in the motion, which drew attention away from the divisive issue of abortion.
The issue has got caught up in domestic Canadian politics, with opposition Liberals trying to equate the Conservatives with the George W. Bush administration and the Conservatives trying to avoid discussion of intra-party debates on the contentious issue of abortion.
Now it seems likely like that Harper will go to the G8 summit in Ontario with a foreign aid plan for maternal health that makes no reference to issues of contraception. According to Canada’s International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda, “saving lives” of women and children is a higher priority than family planning.
But most international maternal health advocates don’t agree. “Maternal mortality rates are high among women who do not have access to family planning services. Contraception can reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies,” said Calyn Ostrowski, program associate for the Wilson Center’s Global Health Initiative. “For example, at a recent event on our Maternal Health series, Harriet Birugni of the Population Council in Kenya described how integrating reproductive health services such as family planning can reduce maternal mortality rates, particularly for poor young women who have the least access to contraception.”
In response to Canada’s announcement, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said that the United States will be promoting global health funding, including access to contraception and abortion, at the G8. “You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health,” she said during a news conference with other G8 ministers. Britain has also agreed with this position, which has led Canadian Liberal Party Leader Michael Ignatieff to say that Canada’s G8 position goes against the international consensus.
Laura Pedro is the program assistant for the Canada Institute, and a graduate of the University of Vermont.
Photo.: Prime Minister Stephen Harper, courtesy Flickr user Kashmera