Canada did its best this week to act like George W. Bush. The government excluded family planning from a new maternal health initiative for developing countries it planned to launch at the G8 meeting in June. Like a minority in our country, their Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon claimed that access to contraception is irrelevant to his goal of saving mothers and infants. After a quick public backlash, he edited his talking points, but still refused to acknowledge that family planning saves lives.
More than 500,000 women die of pregnancy related causes each year, the majority of whom are from the poorest regions of the world and leave behind children vulnerable to poverty, disease, and early death. Family planning not only saves women’s lives, but improves the lives of future generations.
In developing countries across the world, 215 million women need contraception but don’t have access. Including family planning in maternal health projects would prevent women dying in childbirth and reduce debilitating complications. Increased access to safe and effective contraception would actually decrease abortions as it already has in countless countries spanning the globe, from Bangladesh to Romania. Family planning also reduces the transmission of mother-to-child HIV and keeps girls in schools for longer. If Canada’s objective is to improve maternal and child survival, an investment in family planning is not only relevant but imperative.
It may be hard for policymakers to appreciate the importance of family planning when three quarters of Canadian women use contraception, and the chance of dying in childbirth is among the lowest in the world. But the proposal is not for Canada–it will impact women in developing countries like Sierra Leone, where 1 in 8 die in childbirth. Canada’s plan needs to help the young pregnant woman with five children, who does not have a choice to put off another pregnancy and has barely recovered from the prior one. It needs to make sure that she is strong enough to take care of herself and to make a deliberate decision that she can provide for more children before she gets pregnant again.
Under the last three Republican Presidents, the United States implemented the Global Gag Rule, which shuttered health clinics across Africa denying women’s access to safe health care services and a proven method for preventing maternal mortality. Canada should not have even hinted at parroting this stale policy at the G8.
The G8’s previous Communiqués have long recognized the importance of contraceptives and family planning to achieving maternal and child health goals, as has President Obama’s new Global Health Initiative. The U.S. now needs to export its women-centered policies as strongly as Bush exported its harmful ideology.
Suzanne Ehlers is Interim President of Population Action International in Washington D.C.