Saving the lives of women and children

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the World Economic Forum on the need to save the lives of women and children in the developing world.Upon hearing the statistics it is hard not to be moved, to feel that something must be done to change this. Each year, in the developing world, more than 500,000 women die in pregnancy and childbirth, some 9 million children die each year before their fifth birthday. It was these grim numbers that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper used in a keynote address at the Davos World Economic Forum to call for concerted action by G8 countries.  

The problems of heightened infant and maternal mortality in the poorer countries of this planet are not news, they have been known for sometime. In 2000, leaders gathered at the United Nations headquarters to endorse the Millennium Development Goals, which included reducing child mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-quarters by 2015. In the years since, not much has happened.  

So in an open letter published in the Toronto Star, Montreal’s La Presse and Le Figaro in Paris, Stephen Harper announced that as president of the G8 this year, Canada will host the G8 and G20 this June, he will push leaders to make a tangible difference for the women and children of the developed world, saying relatively simple health-care solutions could alter the outcomes. 

"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. Much the same could be said of child mortality. The solutions are similar in nature – better nutrition, immunization – and equally inexpensive in themselves."
The plan laid out by Prime Minister Harper is hard to criticize and it was good to hear, during his speech at Davos, that he has spoken with other G8 leaders and they appear willing to take on this neglected Millennium Development Goal. "It is therefore time," says Harper, "to mobilize our friends and partners to do something for those who can do little for themselves, to replace grand good intentions with substantive acts of human good will."

Yet, when Harper does try to reach out to other nations and get them on board he will face several challenges in bringing about the type of change most of us think of when a world leader says they want to improve the health outcomes of the world's poorest people. The first challenge surfaced in Ottawa at the same time that word of this plan was spreading through the frozen Canadian capital; some development agencies see abortion as the key to reducing infant and maternal mortality.

The change in policy towards family planning in Washington is well documented; abortion is back on the agenda as an acceptable public policy tool for the United States to export around the world. The case in other counties of the G8, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan plus Russia is less well known.

One of the key advisors to Britain's Labour government, or at least Prime Minister Gordon Brown, is Jonathon Porritt of the Optimum Population Trust. Porritt is the man who wants Britain's population cut in half to 30 million people. In conjunction with the United Nation's Population Fund, the OPT also wants to see Africa's population reduced for environmental reasons using family planning, which is often now a program well beyond contraception and includes abortion.

My reason for pointing this out is not to engage in an overall argument about abortion but to set the stage for the argument that what you and I hear when a politician promises something may not be what actually happens. When Prime Minister Harper, as president of the G8, speaks of infant and maternal mortality rates and says, "Far too many lives and futures have been lost." Most of us think his goal is to lower the mortality rates by saving the lives of pregnant women and children under five by improving access to clean water, primary health care, vaccines. That may be what Mr. Harper has in mind and those are in fact what he lists in his speech, but the policy people have other ideas in mind.

Shortly after Harper's push for the G8 to take on this issue became known, a media event was held with Canada's minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda. Ms. Oda gathered several non-governmental groups around the table for a chat on the issue, a brainstorming session of sorts and invited the media to attend. Several well known names were there, UNICEF, CARE, Plan International and World Vision, there was also a group I had not heard of until that day, Action Canada for Population and Development. One of the goals of Action Canada, as I discovered after chatting with their official afterwards, is to promote abortion around the world as a human right.

Now I don't really care which side of the abortion debate you are on, I think we can all agree that when a politician says we should reduce the number of children that die before their fifth birthday, one of the solutions you automatically think of is not abortion. Most reasonable people would think of improving health outcomes. After calls to the offices of Prime Minister Harper and Minister Oda, I've been assured that is what they mean when they speak of this problem, saving lives. Still, they will have a fight on their hands at the G8 from not only the worldwide coalition of NGOs who back Action Canada's viewpoint, but also from other G8 members, like Britain and the United States who may take a different view.

One of the other challenges Harper will face in getting his G8 partners to "replace grand good intentions with substantive acts of human good will," is that what has been tried over the past 15 years or so has not worked. Reducing the mortality rate among mothers and young children may have been a UN Millennium Development Goal but politicians have been speaking about it much longer than the last 10 years. Go back just a bit further and you find these same goals as central to the 1994 Cairo Conference.

Clearly what has been happening so far has not worked. Whether this lack of progress is due to a lack of funds or poorly designed programs is not clear but with billions having been poured into this field over the last decade and zero progress, I'd put my bet on the latter. That won't stop activists for the status quo from trying to ensure their current methods prevail. Stephen Lewis, the former U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS is chastising Harper for coming to this issue late, "It takes a lot of chutzpah to pretend that somehow you're championing something that others have championed so vigorously before you."

We can only hope, for the sake of the women and children whose lives are at risk, that Mr. Harper can convince his fellow G8 leaders not only to get on board with his initiative, but to look at it with fresh eyes, which will take chutzpah, and possibly also include ignoring Stephen Lewis.

Brian Lilley is a political journalist and the Ottawa Bureau Chief for radio stations Newstalk 1010 Toronto and CJAD 800 Montreal. He is also the Associate Editor of Mercatornet. Follow Brian on Twitter.


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