It’s About Abortion, Stupid!

By Joyce Arthur, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada

February 10, 2010

A bewildering firestorm of media controversy has erupted over Michael Ignatieff’s strong and principled statements about women’s reproductive rights overseas. The Liberal Opposition Leader has been urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper not to exclude abortion and contraception from his surprising plan to become a champion of maternal and child health in developing countries.

Of course, Ignatieff is a politician, and bringing up abortion is no doubt a political strategy in part – but it’s also the absolutely right thing for him to do. It is impossible to tackle maternal health without addressing unsafe abortion, which is a leading cause of maternal death in most developing countries. Given the critical importance of legal safe abortion in saving women’s lives, and the Conservative Party’s well-known anti-choice stance, Ignatieff would have been remiss not to make it a burning issue. The majority of women in Canada are pro-choice, and we are surprised, pleased, and hopeful to see Ignatieff stand up to defend the rights of poor women in other countries.

Conservative politicians and commentators have heaped scorn on Ignatieff’s concerns, however, and condemned him for turning women’s health into a “political football.” But most of the politicking is actually coming from Ignatieff’s critics, who have launched attacks without the benefit of any facts, and even less compassion for women. Some of the coverage is so shockingly ignorant that it qualifies as being misogynist. I’ll critique many of the comments that have been made, but first, please pay attention to some key facts:

  • 19-20 million women in developing countries resort to unsafe (usually illegal) abortions every year.  98% of unsafe abortions occur in countries with restrictive abortion laws (generally archaic laws passed by former colonial powers). There are 42 million abortions a year in total.
  • 68,000 women die every year from unsafe abortion. 8 million women experience complications serious enough to require treatment. Of those, 3 million never receive medical treatment.
  • Thirteen percent of all pregnancy-related deaths are due to unsafe abortion.
  • Unsafe abortion is the only cause of maternal mortality that is entirely preventable.
  • The highest abortion rates in the world are generally in developing countries with strict criminal laws against abortion. Laws don’t stop abortion; they only drive it underground and make it dangerous. (Abortion rates are lower and have been declining in countries where it is legal and widely available.)
  • 220,000 children worldwide lose their mothers every year from abortion-related deaths. (Most women in the developing world who have abortions are married with children.)
  • When a pregnant woman dies from unsafe abortion, her existing children are 10 times more likely to die within the next two years.
  • 215 million women in the developing world have an unmet need for modern contraceptives (meaning they want to avoid a pregnancy but are using an ineffective family planning method or no method).
  • If all women who wanted contraception received it, more than 53 million unintended pregnancies would be averted, preventing 25 million abortions, 150,000 maternal deaths, and 640,000 newborn deaths. (Childbirth is dangerous in many developing countries – for example, the lifetime risk of maternal death is 1 in 17 in West and Central Africa, and 1 in 8000 in industrialized countries.)
  • Additional consequences of unsafe abortion include loss of productivity, economic burden on public health systems, stigma, and long-term health problems like infertility.
  • The costs of treating the 5 million women who are hospitalized every year after unsafe abortion is at least $460 million. In Africa, complications of abortion account for 30 to 50 percent of maternal deaths, and hospitals’ maternity wards and budgets are often largely diverted to treating these complications.
  • Safe legal abortion saves women’s lives. Without exception, every country that has legalized abortion has seen dramatic decreases in deaths and serious complications due to unsafe abortion. In western industrialized countries, death from unsafe abortion has been virtually eliminated.


Guttmacher Institute, October 2009. Facts on Induced Abortion Worldwide.

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Guttmacher Institute. 2009. Adding It Up: The Costs and Benefits of Investing in Family Planning and Maternal and Newborn Health.  

World Health Organization, Department of Reproductive Health and Research. Unsafe abortion: global and regional estimates of incidence of unsafe abortion and associated mortality in 2003, Fifth edition. 2007. 

UNICEF. Goal: Improve maternal health. 

UNICEF. State of the World’s Children (SOWC) – Key Statistics.

Khama O. Rogo, John Oucho, and Philip Mwalali. 2006. Maternal Mortality. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). 

Susan A. Cohen. Fall 2009. Guttmacher Policy Review.Facts and Consequences: Legality, Incidence and Safety of Abortion Worldwide. Vol.12, No.4.

Given these facts, let’s look at a representative sample of the inaccurate, ignorant, irresponsible, callous, and misogynist statements recently made by conservative commentators over Ignatieff’s courageous defense of women’s right to safe legal abortion.

“This has nothing to do with abortion. … This is about saving lives of vulnerable children and mothers in the developing world.”

— Dimitri Soudas, spokesperson for Harper. Toronto Star (Susan Delacourt), Feb 3, Michael Ignatieff challenges PM to back aid for abortion.

When one in eight pregnancy-related deaths is due to unsafe abortion, and seven women die every hour from an unsafe abortion, and most of their existing children die from lack of a mother, then abortion obviously has a hell of a lot to do with saving the lives of mothers and children in the developing world. Anyone who believes otherwise is either inexcusably ignorant about these deaths, or indifferent to them.

“This week, [Ignatieff] trolled for votes by dragging out the abortion issue, apropos of … nothing. Bizarrely, he declared that the right to abortion is too sacred to become a political football — even though the only one suited up for the gridiron is Mr. Ignatieff himself. …even Mr. [Paul] Martin never exhibited so much creepy enthusiasm for spreading the Liberals’ abortion gospel to foreign shores.”

— National Post editorial board, Feb 4. Planned propaganda.

The abortion issue can only be “apropos of nothing” if the lives of women who have abortions are completely worthless to the National Post Editorial Board. In their rush to gloat over a Liberal political “gaffe”, they trample over women’s bodies with an enthusiasm that’s downright creepy. As for the Liberals spreading their “abortion gospel to foreign shores,” it’s a bit too late for that. Abortion has been ubiquitous in pretty much every country in the world for decades, if not centuries and millennia. What Ignatieff and everyone else with an ounce of sense and compassion actually want to do is stop unsafe abortion. The only thing the National Post wants to do is turn it into a political football.

“Is ‘hooray for abortions’ a new Liberal policy? Or was [Ignatieff] just extemporizing again?  It remains unclear…”

— Chris Selley, National Post, Feb 4, Fixing the Third World, one abortion at a time.

Yeah, who knows what the hell Ignatieff was talking about? Certainly not Chris Selley, whose ignorance about unsafe abortion is revealed by his delusion that Ignatieff is promoting abortion. It’s Selley who’s being a cheerleader – for the cause of more dead women apparently.

“Of all the issues that you could possibly raise about women’s health, why would you start with abortion? What kind of mindset is that that you have to start killing unborn babies in order to help people? It seems to be based on the now discredited theory that poverty in the Third World is based on overpopulation.”

— Tom Flanagan, University of Calgary political scientist and former campaign manager for the Conservative party. National Post (Kevin Libin), Feb 3, Ignatieff’s fine line between pro-choice and pro-abortion

Good question – why on earth would anyone start with abortion?  We’re talking about a measly 19 or 20 million women who risk their lives every year with an unsafe abortion. And out of those, a mere 8 million are seriously injured, and a paltry 68,000 die. It’s hardly even worth bothering about!  Oh wait, sorry, I see that Flanagan thinks we’re going to “start killing unborn babies” – which means he has no idea that abortion is already rampant in developing countries, no idea that laws don’t stop abortion and fetuses die anyway, and no idea that he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. The gap in his mind has instead been filled by an evidence-free delusion that the Liberals want to control overpopulation.

“In light of the many positive contributions that Canada can make to the improvement of maternal and child health, it is astonishing that … Ignatieff has issued an official statement advocating contraception and abortion as fundamental elements in addressing this important issue.”

— Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto,, Feb 4, Toronto Archbishop Slams “Sad” and “Negative” Proposal by Liberal Leader Ignatieff

What’s astonishing is the Archbishop’s zero concern for women who die from unsafe abortion, the probable sorry fate that then awaits their existing children, and the fact that access to contraception could stop most of this unnecessary mayhem. You’d think Catholic Archbishops would know a little something about abortion, being so dead-set against it. Maybe the Archbishop is not ignorant so much as he is cold-hearted – or perhaps he’s just in stubborn denial. When confronted with the reality of the scourge of unsafe, illegal abortion, anti-choice people have an unfortunate habit of either placing their heads firmly in the sand, or foolishly disputing the numbers. Unluckily for them, overwhelming evidence exists to support the fact that illegal abortion is very widely practiced and that it’s dangerous. Scientists use a range of methods to carefully calculate and cross-check the rates of illegal abortions in various countries. However, it’s difficult to arrive at precise numbers when abortion is illegal, so the numbers are considered at least somewhat, if not grossly, under-reported. (Laura Gil, Assessing maternal mortality due to induced abortion: A systematic review of the literature, 2004. Geneva Foundation for Medical Education and Research. )

“Harper has promised increased aid for women and children abroad, but Ignatieff would like to make this a political issue. The Liberals argued that those who oppose abortion are guided by ‘ideology.’ And the other side is not?”

— Randall Denley, Ottawa Citizen, Feb 7, While he’s at it, maybe Ignatieff could bring back that carbon tax idea. 

It’s true — pro-choice people are guided by some pretty extreme left-wing ideology, such as the notion that women have human rights, including the right to life. That idea may be offensive to many, but like it or not, it’s the law of the land in Canada and across the globe.

“In a Jan. 26 op ed in the Toronto Star and La Presse, Harper said an estimated 500,000 women lose their lives in childbirth and nine million children die before their fifth birthday every year.”
— Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News, Feb 8. Strike abortion from maternal, child health initiative

“When Harper announced in Davos that something must be done for the 500,000 women that die in childbirth each year and the 9 million children that die before their fifth birthday, I doubt that anyone outside of abortion lobby groups said, ‘I know the solution, abortion.’ ”

— Brian Lilley, Canada Politics Examiner, Feb 4. Catholic Archbishop warns Ignatieff and Harper against abortion in foreign aid

Hmm, two different anti-abortion writers, both misquoting Harper on the 500,000 statistic. Because it’s not 500,000 deaths in childbirth, it’s 500,000 pregnancy-related deaths – including unsafe abortion of course. An honest error? Or was it just too tempting and easy to sweep those 68,000 deaths from unsafe abortion under the rug?  Well, I have to give Lilley the benefit of the doubt, because his perplexity about why anyone would suggest the “solution” of abortion reveals that facts about unsafe abortion have never been anywhere near his brain.

“But the Liberal leader also delivered what some observers say may be the most audacious stance in favour of the practice of abortion ever to come from a Liberal leader.”

— Kevin Libin, National Post, Feb 4. ‘They’re prepared to take aggressive position’ 

I hate to sound like a broken record, but an initiative to address unsafe abortion is not a stance “in favour of the practice of abortion.” It’s a stance in favour of saving women’s lives. To clarify, illegal unsafe abortion kills women, and legal safe abortion saves them. That’s not my opinion; it’s a scientific fact that’s been proven over and over and over and over again.

“Is this really what Ignatieff wants pre-occupying Parliament when it resumes? To roll back the clock and reignite the debate over abortion? All over the wording of some “motherhood” statement — pardon the pun — that typically comes out of G8 meetings promising to help the world’s poor? To what purpose?”

— Lorrie Goldstein, Calgary Sun, Feb 6, Abortion fight? Give us a break. 

Hard as it is for Goldstein to understand, the purpose is not to “reignite the debate over abortion.” The purpose is to save women’s lives. If conservative commentators really don’t want to see all this politicizing over abortion, then they should just stop doing it, and let the government get on with the business of saving women’s lives.

“I thought it was pathetic for a political leader to suggest that abortion is somehow tied to the health of women and children. It was a particularly crass remark in light of all the orphaned children we now see in Haiti.”

— Calgary Bishop Fred Henry, National Post (Charles Lewis), Feb 6. Ignatieff’s abortion plan ‘pathetic’: bishop.

Never one to shy away from rabid remarks, the good bishop seems almost proud to admit that he knows nothing and cares nothing about women who die from unsafe abortion. Or the 220,000 orphans leftover after their mother dies, most of whom will probably not survive the next two years. I think that’s rather crass and pathetic of him, don’t you?

“…killing a baby in no way improves its health. Nor, incidentally, does it improve the mother’s health — except in extremely rare circumstances. … That women in the poorest countries are endangered in childbirth — like women in all countries prior to the development of antisepsis by Pasteur and Lister — we know. The mother is not endangered by her child, but by the accidents attending its birth.”

— David Warren, Ottawa Citizen, Feb 7. Safe pregnancies for moms, babies.

If you want to read one of the most eye-rolling misogynist articles I’ve quoted so far, please go to the link. But back to the issue at hand – first, Warren commits the same obfuscation as those two other anti-choicers – he says pregnant women die only in childbirth. Next, simple logic – which completely escapes Warren – says that when you save the life of a woman, you save not only her existing children, but also her future children. And she will decide which ones to bear, regardless of any anti-abortion laws. If she dies because her abortion was illegal and unsafe, then not only is she and her fetus gone, but also her future children and probably her existing children. Legal safe abortion most definitely saves countless children’s lives, just like it saves countless women’s lives.

“Yes, women do need better reproductive care … but lumping abortion in with the promotion and funding of birth control methods is offensive in the extreme. It is laughable to talk about protecting the health of children while advocating abortion as an acceptable method of birth control. Abortion certainly isn’t good for a fetus’ health.”

— Jennifer Cowen, The Intelligencer, Feb 7. Iggy off in support for abortions. 

Do I need to keep repeating myself? I think not.

(For a wonderfully hard-hitting critique of Harper’s initiative to improve maternal and child health, read Stephen Lewis’ comments here)

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