Friday, February 05, 2010

Saving the lives of women and children

Brian Lilley | Monday, 1 February 2010

( The G8 appears set to take on the issues of child and maternal mortality. Can they do it while saving lives, not destroying them?

Upon hearing the statistics it is hard not to be moved, to feel that something must be done to change this. Each year, in the developing world, more than 500,000 women die in pregnancy and childbirth, some 9 million children die each year before their fifth birthday. It was these grim numbers that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper used in a keynote address at the Davos World Economic Forum to call for concerted action by G8 countries.

The problems of heightened infant and maternal mortality in the poorer countries of this planet are not news, they have been known for sometime. In 2000, leaders gathered at the United Nations headquarters to endorse the Millennium Development Goals, which included reducing child mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-quarters by 2015. In the years since, not much has happened.

So in an open letter published in the Toronto Star, Montreal’s La Presse and Le Figaro in Paris, Stephen Harper announced that as president of the G8 this year, Canada will host the G8 and G20 this June, he will push leaders to make a tangible difference for the women and children of the developed world, saying relatively simple health-care solutions could alter the outcomes.

"The solutions are not intrinsically expensive. The cost of clean water, inoculations and better nutrition, as well as the training of health workers to care for women and deliver babies, is within the reach of any country in the G8. Much the same could be said of child mortality. The solutions are similar in nature – better nutrition, immunization – and equally inexpensive in themselves."

The plan laid out by Prime Minister Harper is hard to criticize and it was good to hear, during his speech at Davos, that he has spoken with other G8 leaders and they appear willing to take on this neglected Millennium Development Goal. "It is therefore time," says Harper, "to mobilize our friends and partners to do something for those who can do little for themselves, to replace grand good intentions with substantive acts of human good will."

Yet, when Harper does try to reach out to other nations and get them on board he will face several challenges in bringing about the type of change most of us think of when a world leader says they want to improve the health outcomes of the world's poorest people. The first challenge surfaced in Ottawa at the same time that word of this plan was spreading through the frozen Canadian capital; some development agencies see abortion as the key to reducing infant and maternal mortality.

The change in policy towards family planning in Washington is well documented; abortion is back on the agenda as an acceptable public policy tool for the United States to export around the world. The case in other counties of the G8, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan plus Russia is less well known.

One of the key advisors to Britain's Labour government, or at least Prime Minister Gordon Brown, is Jonathon Porritt of the Optimum Population Trust. Porritt is the man who wants Britain's population cut in half to 30 million people. In conjunction with the United Nation's Population Fund, the OPT also wants to see Africa's population reduced for environmental reasons using family planning, which is often now a program well beyond contraception and includes abortion.

My reason for pointing this out is not to engage in an overall argument about abortion but to set the stage for the argument that what you and I hear when a politician promises something may not be what actually happens. When Prime Minister Harper, as president of the G8, speaks of infant and maternal mortality rates and says, "Far too many lives and futures have been lost." Most of us think his goal is to lower the mortality rates by saving the lives of pregnant women and children under five by improving access to clean water, primary health care, vaccines. That may be what Mr. Harper has in mind and those are in fact what he lists in his speech, but the policy people have other ideas in mind. Full story.

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