Abortion: Harper's vigilant global audience

The CBC is reporting that the federal government is providing funding to Planned Parenthood Canada, after a delay of a year and a half, and only for projects that do not advocate or provide abortion, and only in countries where abortion is usually illegal.

LifeSiteNews, a leading social-conservative website, isn’t assuaged. LifeSite figures any money to Planned Parenthood is money for an “abortion giant,” and that’s enough to make it worth criticizing. Note that the “contact information” at the bottom of the story doesn’t tell you how to contact the reporter, as is the case with, say, Bloomberg. No, it’s addresses and numbers for the Prime Minister, his CIDA minister and for social-conservative MP Brad Trost. LifeSite is telling its readers where to apply pressure to make sure its transgressions against anti-abortion politics go no further.

There’s a lot of that going around, I discover after a morning’s reading. Harper has faced controversy since the run-up to the 2010 Muskoka G-8 summit over his plan to lead a push among G-8 countries to support maternal and child health projects in Africa. The controversy was over the absence of any provision for abortions in international-development programs. There’s a school of thought, to which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clearly belongs, which holds that unwanted pregnancies are a huge danger to women’s health in the developing world, and improving access to abortion is a necessary part of the solution.

Michael Ignatieff’s opposition to the absence of abortion from the government’s plans led him to introduce a motion criticizing the government — one which failed in the Commons, thanks to the Liberal caucus’s own substantial anti-abortion faction.

Now the Harper government has clearly brought Planned Parenthood to heel, blocking any proposal that included abortions for so long that Planned Parenthood finally submitted a proposal with no mention of abortion. In a marked departure from the practice under Liberal governments, Canada now has a government that actually does a lot to promote the health of mothers and their children in the developing world — but only on the condition that mothers carry their fetuses to term and raise their children. In effect, the Harper Conservatives have outsourced their pro-life politics to the developing world.

But here’s the thing. I can find no criticism from any G-8 government of the Muskoka Initiative, including from Clinton and the Americans, or from the Brits or French. All of those countries currently include funding for abortion where it’s permitted abroad (“currently” because the issue is a classic political hot potato in the U.S., with Republican and Democratic presidents usually reversing their predecessors’ policies within days of taking office).

That’s worth repeating. The Muskoka Initiative faces no prominent international criticism for leaving out access to abortion services, even from governments whose own policies include such access. The Muskoka Initiative does provide for other useful services, and Canada’s neighbours are content to take half a loaf. Even non-governmental observers who noticed the absence of abortion were more inclined to focus on the Muskoka Initiative’s other “pleasant surprises.” “Cause for celebration,” the European Pro-Choice Network wrote.

But on the other hand:

I found a lot of international interest, attention and wariness about the Muskoka Initiative in particular, and about the place of abortion in Harper’s foreign-policy agenda, from anti-abortion activists around the world. Here’s some laudatory coverage from an anti-abortion group in France called En Marche pour la vie. Here’s the German pro-life website sounding a wary note: by not mentioning abortion, does the Muskoka Initiative do too little to limit it? And from Peru’s Provida, a newsletter expressing deep worry about the influence of “pro-abortion activist” Bev Oda on the otherwise sensible Harper government.

So the world is watching as Harper builds a development-assistance regime built on programs for mothers and infants but not for abortions. And the loudest voices I can find are the ones urging Harper to more social conservatism, not less.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.