The failure of the federal family plan

By Kim Nursall

The term “family planning” has come under a lot of scrutiny lately, with the Conservative government announcing that maternal health will be Canada’s “signature” initiative at the G8 summit in Huntsville, Ontario this June.

What exactly this initiative will entail has yet to be formalized, but controversy has already arisen over the proposal’s intended methods of “family planning” and whether it will extend to providing abortions. The debate is unnecessarily descending into polarizing moral issues, which does not bode well for the hundreds of thousands of women and children that die each year in pregnancy and childbirth — tragedies that could be avoided if family planning initiatives were implemented and maintained.

Over 10 million women have died in pregnancy and childbirth worldwide since 1990, and three-quarters of those deaths were preventable. Millions of other women have been left with crippling injuries or illnesses. Even more horrific is that four million infants die every year within a month of being born. Relatively speaking, the cost of saving these lives is low. A new study released by the United Nations Population Fund and the Guttmacher Institute estimates that 70 per cent of the world’s maternal deaths could be prevented if an additional $13 billion was spent annually on health care and family planning services.

The Conservative government’s initiative could provide for some of these funds. Unfortunately, the term “family planning” is widely misunderstood and the issue of abortion has entered into the debate. The World Health Organization’s description of family planning does not even contain the term abortion and defines it instead as the practice of allowing individuals and couples to (a) anticipate and attain their desired number of children and (b) determine the spacing and timing of childbirths. It is achieved through the voluntary use of contraceptive methods and the treatment of involuntary infertility.

A woman’s ability to space and limit her pregnancies has a direct impact on her health and well-being, as well as on the outcome of each pregnancy. Studies have shown that family planning practices prevent approximately one-third of pregnancy-related deaths, as well as 44 per cent of neonatal deaths. This is because timing and spacing of pregnancies is needed to prevent adverse pregnancy outcomes, including high rates of prematurity, malnutrition and stunting in children. If nothing else, the capacity to determine whether to become pregnant and how many children to have has long been recognized as a human right.

Family planning is the best place to begin if we want to better the lives of women and children the world over. Yet despite widespread agreement concerning the positive impacts of family planning, the current debate in Canada has become unnecessarily divisive. A G8 initiative advocating family planning should not be put forth for ideological or political reasons — it should be raised for the simple, practical reason that such initiatives have proven conclusively to save the lives of women and children. But this evidence counts for nothing against “morally right” proposals and the conflation of the terms “family planning” and “abortion” will hinder any initiative’s ability to actually provide for maternal health. By making family planning a moral issue, the G8 program will necessarily be handcuffed by ideological concessions, the very same concessions that have been causing women and children the world over to suffer from preventable trauma and death.

How ironic that what is claimed to be morally right is allowing for something so wrong.

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