OTTAWA—Starting next year, Canada will spend $14 billion over a 10-year period on global maternal and child health services, with fully half — $700 million annually — dedicated to contraception, legal abortion services and sexuality education in developing countries, says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The pledge to spend up to $1.4 billion a year will renew and increase international development spending that was set to expire in 2020. It extends Canada’s contributions until 2030, and expands funding to cover a wide range of education, birth control and abortion services — something the previous Conservative government in Canada, and the United States under Republican administrations has refused to do under the so-called “ global gag rule.”
That’s the American policy that bars non-governmental organizations from receiving U.S. aid funds if they provide or advocate for reproductive health or abortion services.
The announcement was met with praise from grassroots non-governmental aid and health organizations here, but criticized by the Conservative Opposition’s foreign affairs critic as pre-election posturing.
Trudeau drew a sharp contrast between his government and other countries — which he didn’t name — who he said are “stepping back” from protecting women’s health and rights globally.
“This is a game changer that will empower 18 million women and girls in developing countries by 2030,” said Trudeau at the international Women Deliver conference in Vancouver.
He said governments can help women get access to birth control while also delivering maternal and neonatal services to make sure that “newborns don’t become orphans. Health is health.”
Trudeau said there are “some politicians who want to drive a wedge between these two goals, to create division where none should exist. There are politicians here in Canada who have called our investments exporting an ideological agenda,” he said.
“This should not be a political issue. These divisions are playing out globally with devastating consequences and women deserve better.”
Speaking to reporters after his announcement, Trudeau again declined to name the United States but said: “While other countries are stepping back on their investments, and playing politics with it, Canada is stepping up.” He also acknowledged access to safe abortion services in Canada is still “uneven” but noted his government last month lifted restrictions for prescribing Mifegymiso, the abortion pill, “giving more women especially in rural and remote areas access to reproductive health options.”
The Canadian Partnership for Women’s and Children’s Health, a coalition of 100 grassroots organizations that lobbied for the pledge, hailed Trudeau’s move.
“We are just beside ourselves with excitement,” said spokesperson Julia Anderson, who said the announcement is “a direct response” to the global gag rule.
“When you look at what the Trump administration has done, they’ve expanded their definition of what reproductive health and rights look like to include menstrual hygiene,” she said. She said the American policy is so broad that “partners in countries, like local community health hubs, are terrified to offer counselling on the use of condoms, because that can be interpreted under the global gag rule as promoting reproductive health and rights.”
Trudeau’s announcement tells the world “Canada is not going to shy away from whatever we hear that our partners need,” she said.
“This will make us the number one global leader in funding for sexual and reproductive health and rights but also it will make us a leader on the global health stage.”
Conservative opposition foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole dismissed the pledge that he said comes a “few weeks away from an election” and is an attempt to “bring in and import the debate from the United States.”
In Vancouver, federal Minister for Women and Gender Equality Maryam Monsef said reproductive rights are an election issue.
“Ultimately Canadians have a choice this fall, that choice is do we move forward to close the wage gap and increase the number of women leaders, or do we go backward to debates we settled decades ago.”
With files from Cherise Seucharan in Vancouver
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: