A lousy progress report on reducing maternal mortality

Goal 5 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is to “reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio.” The UN admits in its latest report that this goal will not be met – not even close. In the developing world, it’s estimated that there were 480 maternal deaths per 100 000 births in 1990. In 2005, that figure was reduced to 450 maternal deaths. Current estimates place the number at over half a million women and girls who die as a result of complications during pregnancy, childbirth or six weeks following delivery – with a majority of these deaths being preventable.

The upcoming G8 summit this June in HuntsvilleCanada is meant to have a significant focus on maternal and child health care. Canada’s Primer Minister said that “Canada will champion a major initiative to improve the health of women and children in the world’s poorest regions.”

This championing effort is coming under fire from critics who say the initiative is not strong on sexual and reproductive health rights. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stated: “You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health, and that includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortions.” Canada’s Liberal party, the official opposition, launched a motion March 23 asking for sexual and reproductive health to be spelled out in the G8 initiative:

“That, in the opinion of the House, the government’s G8 maternal and child health initiative for the world’s poorest regions, must include the full range of family planning, sexual and reproductive health options, including contraception, consistent with the policy of previous Liberal and Conservative governments and all other G8 governments last year in L’Aquila, Italy; that the approach of the Government of Canada must be based on scientific evidence which proves that education and family planning can prevent as many as one in every three maternal deaths; and that the Canadian government should refrain from advancing the failed right-wing ideologies previously imposed by the George W. Bush administration in the United States which made humanitarian assistance conditional upon a “global gag rule” that required all non-governmental organizations receiving federal funding to refrain from promoting medically-sound family planning.”

The motion was defeated. Action Canada for Population and Development has been championing the promotion of maternal health care and offers a call to action to work with governments around the world to “ensure that sexual and reproductive health and rights – particularly access to family planning, including contraception – will be part of the G8 maternal and child health initiative.” Their website gives more details.

There is certainly no shortage of opinions on this issue. United Families International calls abortion a “radical idiology [sic] represents a dangerous logic. It equates maternity with disease.” I tend to think their own logic is frighteningly dangerous. You’ll find just as many editorials, comments, blogs and other messages on the web either praising or shaming our government’s stance. A recent Harris Decima poll here in Canada suggests that a majority of Canadians support providing contraception to women in developing countries as part of a maternal health program, but when it comes to abortion, Canadians are evenly divided on the issue.
As a human rights educator, I admit I’ve steered clear of abortion; I know my views are contrary to those of some people I have trained in workshops. But shouldn’t my role as an educator be one where I can bring to the surface different opinions, different beliefs, and either try to come to a mutual respect of those views or at least find some common ground?

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