This past Spring, the Conservative government seemed confused about the message, if not its actual plan, when it came to funding abortion and contraception through its maternal health initiative. When the initiative first appeared in the newspapers, it was reported that Bev Oda, the Minister for International Co-operation and Minister Responsible for the Canadian International Development Agency, was being advised by the pro-abortion, pro-population control Action Canada for Population Development. For his part, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that the priority areas for maternal health would include nutrition, clean water, inoculations, and safe obstetric care, and he did not mention abortion or contraception. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff promptly hammered the government for this oversight and insisted, “If we’re going to improve maternal health and child health around the world, women need access to the full gamut of reproductive health services.”
The Prime Minister’s Office would only reply that the government was not interested in “opening the abortion issue” and Oda herself said, “Canada is not currently going to be changing its approach to improving maternal and infant health … The prime minister has been clear since we became government that there’s no intention on regenerating any debate on abortion.” That was less than clarifying, because, in recent decades, Canada has funded overseas abortion as part of its development aid through direct CIDA-funded projects and a $20 million annual operations grant to International Planned Parenthood that ended in 2009; until Harper’s announcement, there was no specific, targeted maternal health program.
After several weeks of attacks by the opposition parties, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon reiterated in committee hearings the government’s policy that abortion and contraception were not a part of their signature initiative going into the G8 meetings because the government’s focus was on “saving lives.” The initiative, he said, “does not deal in any way, shape or form with family planning.” The next day, Stephen Harper announced that indeed maternal health would include contraception, but not abortion. It was unclear whether this was a clarification or a reversal. Bev Oda spent the next two months reiterating the official line as offered by the Prime Minister’s Office: the maternal health initiative is about saving lives, contraception would be included, and that the government was not interested in re-opening the abortion debate.
In June, the G8 endorsed a maternal health plan that committed the rich countries to fund reproductive health, but not abortion. The issue died down for the Summer.
In August, Oda went on an official trip to Mali and Mozambique, during which she bragged about the effect of providing “maternal nutrition and family planning” to poor women in Africa. Upon returning, she granted an interview with the Ottawa Citizen where the minister said she agreed with the statement that addressing maternal health was not possible without funding family planning. Oda also indicated that the non-government organizations – probably pro-abortion NGOs – she met with in Africa support family planning and abortion.
Then, in what appeared to be a stunning reversal of government policy, she said Canada would support abortion, “as long as it is legal within a country and it’s a legal procedure,” so long as “we were asked to help in that way, we would do that.”
The Citizen’s Elizbeth Payne also reported the government is funding Maria Stopes International, a British-based organization similar to Planned Parenthood, and that Oda said Ottawa was “on the verge” (in the paper’s words) of re-funding International Planned Parenthood.
Jessica Fletcher, a spokesman for Oda, said the Citizen’s report was not accurate and insisted that “Canada has never directly funded abortion in developing countries” and “that our government has been very clear that abortion will not be funded under Canada’s G8 initiative.”
However, if the policy and actions of the government were clear, there would not be any confusion. Instead, as the Canadian Press said, Oda’s comments “appeared to muddy the waters” of an already “ambiguous” plan. The blame goes to the media and the government, for several reasons.
The media has confused the issue by conflating maternal health with all foreign aid. There is not necessarily any contradiction in not funding abortion through one project, narrowly focused on maternal health, but continuing to fund abortion elsewhere. Many in the media seem ignore that there can be two policies in abortion funding, or they prefer to score points on the government by pointing to some supposed hypocrisy. (The rationale for such an inconsistency, however, should be explained by the government.)
The government has failed to clearly articulate what it is up to: is there abortion funding through CIDA or third parties that is not included in its maternal health initiative? While the government has resisted pressure to include abortion in its G8 initiative, it has not been forthright in what other aid funding of organizations tied to abortion or local projects involved in abortion there might be. The government is trying to appease socially conservative voters on the one hand by implying that there is no funding of abortion while keeping a lid on any debate about abortion by refusing to acknowledge that there are a multitude of ways that Canada supports abortion abroad. The Conservatives need to stop stringing pro-lifers along with false impressions.
Stephen Harper is not helping matters by having Oda, qualified as pro-abortion by Campaign Life Coalition, quarterbacking his maternal health initiative. She is neither ideologically committed to excluding abortion nor competent enough to articulate the specifics of the government’s various aid policies.
CLC national president Jim Hughes said that because “Bev Oda has once again shown her preference on ‘access to abortion’,” she cannot be counted on to “implement the goals of providing help to women and children in the third world.” Campaign Life Coalition has called upon Harper to “remove Bev Oda from her position as Minister of International Co-operation since she cannot seem to follow government policy on the international stage.”
That is, assuming she is not following government policy.
On Sept. 2, the Globe and Mail reported that Canada is funding illegal abortions through Marie Stopes, although no specifics were included in the story, including which countries this may be occurring in, because the unnamed sources wanted to avoid reprisals. Hughes said that the government should begin clarifying its position on abortion by investigating the Globe’s claims and immediately cease funding to Marie Stopes until it can prove that is not involved in illegal abortions. Or Harper can clarify the government’s position that it has no problem funding such activities.
Clearly, the talking point of the PMO is that the government has no interest in re-opening the abortion debate is insufficient. The debate has been opened. Canada’s international aid policy regarding abortion requires clarifying. Taxpayers are owed answers. The issue is not going away.