A Monday gathering of Canadian and international women's rights experts on Parliament Hill was intended to discuss Canada's role in the maternal and child health initiative at the upcoming G8 summit; To voice their concerns over the erosion of gender equality and women's rights in foreign policy under Stephen Harper, and address the omission of abortion rights in the maternal health initiative.
But rather than taking into consideration the issues brought forward by those in attendance, Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth offered some raw advice in an effort to silence further debate on the abortion issue.
"We've got five weeks or whatever left until G-8 starts. Shut the fuck up on this issue. Let it roll out. I hope I'm not proven wrong, but I have every confidence that it will include family planning and so on ... and I hope I'm right. It's just, if you push it, there will be more backlash. This is now a political football. This is not about women's health in this country."
The threat of potential 'backlash' validates the suspicions already percolating throughout various Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), that in criticizing the Harper government you run the risk of having your organization defunded. In fact, over the past two weeks alone, many women's rights groups have already been stripped of their funding:
-Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW)
-Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA)
-Conseil d'intervention pour l'accès des femmes au travail (CIAFT)
-New Brunswick Pay Equity Coalition,
-Réseau des Tables régionales de groupes de femmes du Québec
-Alberta Network of Immigrant Women,
-MATCH (30 year old organization fighting for equality for poor women),
-Centre de documentation sur l'éducation des adultes et la condition feminine
-Association féminine d'éducation et d'action sociale (AFEAS)
-Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH)
-Womenspace Resource Centre (Lethbridge, AB)
-Feminists for Just and Equitable Public Policy (FemJEPP) in Nova Scotia
The rescinding of federal funds from these organizations strikes an eerie resemblance to George W Bush's infamous Mexico City Policy, also known as the global gag rule, which prohibited all federally funded NGOs from performing, promoting, or advocating for abortions in other countries. This poorly conceived policy is supported and promoted by the religious right, where ideology always comes first and scientific fact is often ignored.
As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated during her appearance at the G8 foreign minister's meeting, "if we're talking about maternal health, you cannot have maternal health without reproductive health; and reproductive health includes contraception and family planning, and access to legal, safe abortion."
In what it bills as 'The Preventable Pandemic,' the World Health Organization (WHO) compiled a sobering report on the "urgent public-health and human-rights imperative" of unsafe abortions. The report sheds light on the fact that "unsafe abortion remains one of the most neglected sexual and reproductive health problems in the world today," providing stunning statistics to back up the assertion. The report estimates about 68 000 women die every year from unsafe abortions, 97% of which occur in developing countries. In Africa alone, over half of all maternal deaths come as a direct result of unsafe abortions.
Death isn't the only consequence of so called 'backstreet' abortions; morbidity, or permanent injury, including haemorrhage, sepsis, infection, and trauma to the uterus and abdominal organs is a common occurrence. The report states that when access to safe abortion is made more difficult or illegal, women's health rapidly deteriorates. By contrast, women's health rapidly improves when abortion is made legal, safe, and easily accessible.
The WHO report also details the impact unsafe abortions have on the medical system, noting "treatment of abortion complications burdens public health systems in the developing world. Conversely, ensuring women's access to safe abortion services lowers medical costs for health systems. In some low- income and middle-income countries, up to 50% of hospital budgets for obstetrics and gynaecology are spent treating complications of unsafe abortion."
"The cost per woman to health systems for treatment of abortion complications in Tanzania is more than seven times the overall Ministry of Health budget per head of population. Estimates from Uganda comparing costs of treatment of abortion complications with costs of providing safe, elective abortion show the potential resource-savings to health systems. Post-abortion care offered in tertiary hospitals by physician providers was estimated to cost health systems ten times more than elective abortion services offered by mid- level practitioners in primary care."
Perhaps the most compelling argument for the inclusion of access to safe abortion in the G8 maternal health initiative deals with the sensitive issue of rape. It's undeniable that rape is used as a weapon of war, and women and young girls are targeted as a means to punish others. Some people in South Africa hold the belief that intercourse with a virgin will cure HIV, so children are preyed upon and victimized, many becoming pregnant as a result. Why should these victims, having already been traumatized, be forced to carry the child of the man who raped them? More importantly, why should children who are impregnated following a rape, be subjected to a full pregnancy at the tender age of 11?
In Canada we're fortunate to have the freedom of choice; When a woman is faced with a dangerous or unwanted pregnancy, she has a full range of options available to her. The fundamental advantage of a pro-choice policy is safe access to abortion when necessary, but not necessarily an abortion. It means protecting and preserving life in the vast majority of pregnancies, while providing safe access to a service that, in various circumstances, is medically necessary.
The NGO's and advocates speaking on behalf of women's rights understand the importance of a woman's right to chose. The foundation from which they craft their policy is based on sound research, verifiable data, and direct input from medical professionals. The push for the inclusion of access to safe abortions in the G8 initiative is not based on a political agenda or religious ideology; It's based on the desire to craft a comprehensive foreign aid policy that will best enhance the lives of women and children in developing nations.
These tireless crusaders for women's rights must continue to speak out, demanding to be heard. At a time when their voices are more important than ever, they mustn't surrender to the threats and intimidation from the Prime Minister and his Conservative colleagues. If Harper is genuinely interested in improving the health and welfare of women and children abroad, he'd do himself a great deal of service by heeding the advice of those who've dedicated their lives to the very initiative he espouses.
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