WASHINGTON — An international maternal health confab ended in a difference of Canadian opinion Wednesday — a Conservative cabinet minister basking in claims of praise, her Liberal rival describing an attack on Ottawa’s return to “the Dark Ages” by excluding abortion from its signature G8 maternal health initiative.
“People here are perplexed and wondering why Canada is rolling back the clock and depriving women in developing countries from having the same rights to basic health care and access to abortion as women in Canada,” said Keith Martin, a Grit backbencher who defected from the Tories in 2004.
“They’re mystified as to why the Canadian government has taken this position. They’re asking, ‘Why is Canada, of all the countries in the world, taking this regressive stand on abortion?’ They didn’t expect Canada to step back into the Dark Ages.”
But Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda, who participated in a lunch discussion with a moderator at the Women Deliver conference on Wednesday, said she heard no such chatter. Canada, in fact, was widely praised for its G8 initiative and the abortion exclusion barely came up, she said.
“It’s not an issue of contention,” Oda said.
No “divisive issues” were raised, she added, and Canada was praised for putting maternal health on the agenda at the G8.
The three-day conference brought together doctors, nurses and health-care experts from around the world, including developing nations, to discuss maternal-health issues in advance of the G8 summit later this month.
The conference’s highlight came when Melinda Gates announced that the Gates Foundation was committing US$1.5 billion in new grant money for maternal health.
Teresa Chiesa, CARE Canada’s program manager for Africa, said the meeting was a success as stakeholders from all over the world committed to ensuring that the rate of maternal deaths continues its downward trend.
But Canada’s stance on abortion was indeed a topic of discussion among delegates in the crowded corridors of the Washington Convention Center this week, Chiesa said.
“It seems as though it’s a step backwards for Canada, and European countries are amazed that this is actually still an issue for Canada, since they’ve moved so far beyond it in Europe,” Chiesa said.
“American colleagues are kind of surprised that Canada is grappling with this issue because we’ve always been very progressive and mindful of human rights . . . . there is real surprise that the government has excluded abortion from the initiative.”