WHO chief sides with U.S. over abortion access and maternal health
By Steven Edwards, Canwest News Service April 15, 2010
World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan delivers her speech at the opening of a health experts meeting at the WHO headquarters on April 12, 2010 in Geneva.
UNITED NATIONS — The head of the World Health Organization signaled Wednesday that the United States — not Canada — was on the right track over the question of supporting access to abortion services amid an international bid to improve child and maternal health.
Dr. Margaret Chan tipped her hand just minutes after sitting next to International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda at a news conference at the United Nations, where the two women and other dignitaries joined UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in announcing the launch of the world body’s new push to reduce maternal childbirth and pregnancy deaths.
Chan described abortion as a “very complex, difficult and sensitive” issue, but went on to praise U.S. President Barack Obama for his position that women have a legal right to the procedure.
Her comment contrasted the position of the Harper government, whose “signature” international initiative on maternal and children’s health initially aimed to exclude access to abortion.
“In the case of Canada, I think I respect the government and its people to decide what is their right investment — and I am sure that this is the discussion that is going on,” said Chan, director-general of WHO.
But she added: “I am very pleased to see the change in President Obama — this is really wonderful; sometimes . . . it is not easy for outside people to tell them what to do.”
Last year the Obama administration began to re-fund the UN Population Fund, which the previous Bush administration kept at arm’s length amid accusations the UN agency had ties to China’s one-child policy, which critics say involves forced abortions.
And last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Ottawa that any international effort to boost maternal health must include family planning services — among them access to legal, safe abortions.
David Miliband, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who was also in the Canadian capital, joined her in that stance.
Oda will run into Chan again Thursday, when the two are scheduled to be among a select group of 40 government, agency and foundation representatives meeting behind closed doors to launch work on a “joint action plan” on maternity and child care that UN member states will be asked to adopt at the UN’s September Summit.
UN officials say the plan seeks to find a way to meet universally agreed goals on such care among the development goals set at the 2000 Millennium Summit.
The push for the joint-action plan unfolds as Canada will this summer use its position as host of the G8 meeting to promote its maternal and children’s health care initiative. Canada is also set to host this summer the G20, which represents the leading developed and developing nations.
“Development work is a constant process, and so you don’t just set a target for one meeting,” Oda told reporters after saying in a statement that the parallel efforts by the bordering countries would be “complementary.”
She added that Canada would not insist that other G8 members agree with the Canadian government’s approach on the abortion issue, reflecting Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments in the House of Commons recently that countries were free to make their own decisions about how to best further the overall health care cause.
“I’ve just told my colleagues that every country has experience, and we’re asking them all to focus within a framework,” Oda said. “However, they will be free and flexible to choose the best way that they will contribute to the effort.”
The UN launched its initiative amid its own embarrassment after the British medical journal Lancet reported on a study that said maternity deaths were sharply down — in contrast to a UN report Tuesday that said there had been little change.
Amid suggestions by some international commentators that the UN had deliberately camouflaged progress in order to try to maintain the flow of international aid, Ban said he “welcomed” the Lancet report, which quoted from a study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“There should not be any misunderstandings,” Ban said.
Chan, meanwhile, called the findings of both studies “estimates.”
The paper published by the Lancet said the number of women dying each year from childbirth had fallen to about 342,900 in 2008, down from 526,300 in 1980.
The UN — which says rich countries need to hand over about $20 billion a year between now an 2015 in order to meet the Millennium goals — claimed the figure remains steady at about 500,000 deaths a year.
The UN faced a similar controversy over its past claims about the number of people afflicted with the AIDS virus. Officials finally admitted they had been overestimating the numbers and donors began to downsize their financial commitments.
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