Katherine McDonald, executive director of Action Canada for Population and Development (ACPD), a human rights advocacy organization, has been at the forefront in the debate over Canada’s leadership role in promoting women’s rights.
McDonald was in the meeting of an international women's equality rights panel when Tory senator Nancy Ruth told the panellists to "shut the fuck up” about their concerns over the government's maternal health initiative.
“She was being deadly honest,” says McDonald. “The Liberals are calling on her to apologize and I don’t think that necessary. What she did was open the debate and say very clearly that the Conservatives will punish those who criticize them.”
The meeting came in the wake of the Conservative government’s announcement that, as part of the G8 initiative to improve maternal and child health in developing countries, Canada would not fund abortions.
The announcement has raised concerns from human rights and sexual reproductive health organizations, which question Canada’s role in promoting women’s health, the government’s commitment to human rights and the impact the decision may have on a national level.
McDonald’s concern focuses on the new direction the Harper government appears to be taking.
“It means that a crucial part of the continuing care of women need, in their reproductive lives, is not going to be funded by Canada,” says McDonald. “From my point of view, it is a foreign policy reversal. It’s a shift in Canada’s long-standing support for reproductive health organizations around the world.”
Details of the initiative have not been released yet. But McDonald fears that the Harper government may impose a global gag rule — similar to the one imposed in the United States during George W Bush’s administration — that blocks federal funds being given to international family-planning groups offering abortion and abortion counselling.
Cutting funds to organizations that provide abortion-related services means the government will be deviating from the global consensus — agreed on by world leaders at the G8 summit in 2009 — that takes a comprehensive and integrated approach to sexual and reproductive health services. By playing favourites, the government undermines the maternal and child health initiative and risks leaving out critical aspects related to women’s health.
McDonald also wonders whether the announcement violates the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act (ODA) of 2008.
The ODA requires that all federal agencies giving foreign assistance must pass three conditions.
The first is that the organization must prove that the foreign aid will contribute to poverty reduction. The second condition stipulates that foreign assistance must take into account the perspectives of the poor, and the third is that funding must be consistent with international human rights standards.
“The international human rights community has declared that preventable maternal mortality is a pressing human rights concern,” says McDonald. “And the treaty bodies have universally linked high maternal mortality rates with the lack of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and restrictions on abortion.”
Jolanta Scott-Parker, executive director of the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health, has been monitoring the situation over the past week.
“Its very interesting to see the uprising across the political spectrum,” says Scott-Parker. “From those who find the process frustrating, that we would take away from women around the world the same privileges and rights that women in Canada currently have access to.”
Both Scott-Parker and McDonald are concerned that a communiqué issued after last year’s G8 summit on maternal health may be weakened after Harper’s comments. The consensus reached by the countries attending the summit was that maternal health includes sexual reproductive health services.
“It talked about improving maternal health through sexual and reproductive health care and services and voluntary family planning,” says McDonald. “And, if you take the UN definition of reproductive health services it includes abortion, where legal.”
Although the G8 initiative is directed at an international level, the government has indicated that it is not interested in reopening the debate on abortion. However, it is likely the foreign policy initiative taken by Harper will have repercussions on a national level.
“We are supposed to have foreign policy that is consistent with our domestic policy — that has always been a tenant of most foreign aid policies,” says McDonald. “Whether they like it or not they have opened the debate in Canada.”
However, Scott-Parker says making a stand on abortion issues at an international level may be a way for the Harper government not to have to deal with it at home.
“There is certainly some discussions on whether or not the government opposing abortion in this context internationally is perhaps a way for them not to have to deal with it domestically,” says Scott-Parker.
But whether the debate has opened or not, Canada’s integrity as a leading supporter of reproductive rights has been put out to the world for scrutiny.
“Why Canada would be in a position not to support access to such safe services where it is legal in their country, is the question,” says Scott-Parker.