Maternal health the right choice for G8

  • June 18, 2010
Maternal healthcareTORONTO - Canada has picked the right issue to push at the G8 meetings in Huntsville, Ont., June 25 and 26, but it hasn't got the math quite right, according to aid groups.

Leaked drafts of the final Huntsville communique indicate Canada is offering $1 billion over five years to tackle maternal and child deaths in poor countries — a commitment that comes in less than the $1.1 billion security budget for the G8/G20 summit and less than the $1.5 billion recently pledged for maternal and child health by Bill and Melinda Gates.

Targeting the health of women and children is the right thing to do, said Michael Casey, executive director of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

“It is certainly a huge development priority,” Casey said.

Almost any effort that helps women pays big dividends in terms of reducing poverty, he said.

“It’s been proven in all the development studies that have ever been done ever since development assistance was begun after the Second World War that the most effective means of achieving development goals has been through working with women and girls. Health is naturally part of this,” said Casey.

Reducing the number of mothers who die in child birth and the number of children who die of simple diarrhea, measles and other treatable diseases are two of the eight Millennium Development Goals adopted by all 192 United Nations member states in 2001. In the developing world each year, more than half a million women die during pregnancy or in child birth and more than eight million children die before their fifth birthday. Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to use the G8 summit to champion an initiative to dramatically decrease the number of these largely preventable deaths.

The United Nations children’s fund says Canada should contribute $2 billion over five years as its share of $30 billion needed to cut by two thirds the number of preventable deaths among children under five between 1990 and 2015, and to reduce by three quarters the number of mothers who die in child birth. The Canadian arm of Make Poverty History is asking Harper to make it $1.4 billion over five years.

KAIROS, the Canadian ecumenical social justice coalition, can’t fault the government for choosing to help women, but the organization fears the government is using the maternal health initiative to paper over an inadequate commitment to all eight Millennium Development Goals and its budget freeze. A freeze on aid spending will see Canada’s overseas development aid decrease from 0.33 per cent of Gross National Income to 0.28 per cent of GNI by 2014.

Though it’s important to get the numbers right, it’s also important that world leaders are meeting face-to-face to discuss the fate of poor women and children, said Catholic writer Janet Somerville.

“Isn’t it cool that these great, big important people with all their entourages and stuff are going to sit down and crack their heads about how to make more resources available so that mothers and their little children don’t have to get sick and die?” she asked. “It makes me very patient with all the hoo ha about the meetings.”

Somerville regrets that helping women has been linked to abortion in public debate.

“There’s a painful divergence with most people in our secular society who see the right to abortion as a justice issue — that it’s unjust to deny that and cruel to deny that,” she said. “It’s getting harder and harder, especially for young people, to have that sense of awe and reverence for the beginning of a new life, and how that trumps adult preferences because a whole human life has begun. The minute it’s alive, it’s human.”

If the G8 meeting has the effect of increasing the calls to fund abortion in poor countries, Catholics will be left trying to explain how opposing abortion equals respect for women.
“Culturally, it’s getting harder and harder to see our real anti-abortion stance as anything but cruel,” said Somerville.

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