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The Abortion Issue Threatens To Turn Harper’s G8 Maternal Health Initiative Into A Troublesome, Unwanted Brainchild

May 2, 2010
Teens at a pro-choice rally in Ottawa. CC Flickr image thanks to Jenn Farr.

Teens at a pro-choice rally in Ottawa. CC Flickr image thanks to Jenn Farr.

So, it’s Canada’s turn to hold the presidency of the G8, that fading but still powerful octet of wealthy, mostly Western, more or less democratic nations. In its wisdom, Stephen Harper’s government decided that the centrepiece of Canada’s G8 presidency would be an initiative to promote the health of mothers and children in poorer countries. One could almost see the pink halo forming around the prime minister’s head, and hear thesoothing strains of violin music in the background. It was as if the fuzzy sweater vest he had donned during the last election campaign had integrated itself into his very soul. But then, suddenly, a discordant note disrupted the dulcet harmonies as people, most notably Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals, began to raise a predictable point: one way to promote the health of mothers is to offer them safe abortions. And suddenly, the pink halo vanished and Stephen Harper was more or less himself again, ideological and defensive and not remotely interested in having an honest conversation with Canadian voters.

The surprising thing about this episode was that the Tories appeared to be caught completely flat-footed. It was as if they had never even considered the blindingly obvious (in hindsight, admittedly) possibility that the question of abortion would be broached in connection with their sparkly new plans. At first they seemed to have no idea how to respond, even sowing confusion over whether they were going to include any sort of “family planning” in their initiative. Last Monday, however, we had a reasonably clear statement from the government:

International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said the government would consider funding family planning measures such as contraception, but not abortion under any circumstances.

“We’re saying that we’re using the definition in our discussions of family planning, which does not include abortion,” Oda told reporters on Monday in Halifax, where she was meeting with her G8 counterparts.

“We’re not debating abortion; we’re clarifying family planning.”

It’s nice that Canadians have a straight answer, but there’s still plenty to discuss. At least some of our G8 partners are clearly willing to provide funding for safe abortion procedures as part of their contributions to the maternal health initiative, despite Oda’s insistence that there is “no division” between Canada’s plans and theirs. This presumably means that any funding from Canada will have to be fastidiously separated from that provided by countries happy to support abortion. Furthermore, the government’s position would seem to preclude channeling Canadian money through any organisation that offers abortions alongside other health-related services, at least without cumbersome bureaucratic oversight to ensure that the funds are spent on something other than bumping off unwanted embryos and foetuses.

I’m not sufficiently familiar with the mechanics of foreign aid to know how problematic such constraints would be in practice. The larger issue, however, is that the actual effectiveness of abortion as a measure for promoting maternal and infant health has played a minimal role in the political discussion so far. After all, there are a lot of ways to improve the health of mothers and children. No initiative could encompass every single possibility, which implies that the G8 will need to focus on a limited range of strategies. Both the Conservatives and their critics on this issue should be devoting more attention to the pragmatic question of whether abortion programmes will be an effective use of whatever funds become available. If so, the Liberals and others will have a much stronger case for insisting that abortion should be included in the G8 initiative; if not, the Conservatives’ refusal to make abortion part of the package will seem much more justifiable.

Perhaps my perspective is coloured by the fact that I have absolutely no moral problem with abortion myself, but in my view the Tories appear to be getting the worst of the controversy at the moment. Their clear discomfort with the topic of abortion, and even to some extent that of “family planning”, is bound to rekindle the old toxic suspicions of a barely veiled social conservative agenda.

Harper and his cabinet may (or may not) have conceived the maternal health initiative in a moment of wild political passion, but now they’ll be forced to live with the consequences. Even if they would prefer to terminate the whole plan at an early stage, the expectations of their G8 partners and the media will force them to carry their brainchild to term. If the controversies continue – if the maternal health initiative becomes an intolerable burden that threatens to ruin Stephen Harper’s political life – I would call it poetic justice.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. NauticalMongoose permalink
    May 4, 2010 8:40 am

    This is really much ado about nothing. Considering that Canada already has very liberal laws regarding abortion (i.e. none) I don’t see how this supposed controversy is supposed to reflect some kind of sudden policy conflict (well, maybe it represents a public relations conflict; even a Tory supporter like me has been frustrated by the government’s opacity in this regard).

    Also, where are these countries that want to fund Third-World abortions? Isn’t that technically against UNFPA’s position? And what about the idea that countries should decide for themselves how much abortion they’re willing to allow? There are so many other salient issues regarding the funding of abortion that its narrow-sighted, I believe, to focus on what is relatively speaking a local political blunder.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      May 4, 2010 11:52 am

      Thanks for the well-considered comment, and the link. The policy conflict that I see here is between the absence of restrictions on abortion in Canada and the government’s apparent refusal to even consider funding abortions abroad. I don’t think anyone is talking about providing abortion services in countries where this is currently illegal – the idea is to provide backing for safe abortions where the practice is already allowed, but underfunded. The government’s unwillingness to consider doing this implies an objection to abortion in principle, whereas the domestic legal situation implies that Canada officially has no problem with abortion. The Tories are hinting to the developing world that abortion is morally unacceptable, while refusing to make that same argument in Canada.

      I think Stephen Taylor is slightly misrepresenting UNFPA in the blog post you linked to. Based on the actual quotes he posted, UNFPA is against using abortion as a method of family planning (which presumably means as a substitute for contraceptives and/or simply abstaining from vaginal intercourse), and doesn’t fund abortions itself. However, that doesn’t mean UNFPA would object to efforts by governments or other organisations to fund abortions as, effectively, a second line of defence against unwanted pregnancies.

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