Body Politic #12: Why are Conservative female politicians silent on women's health?

Helena Guergis, Bev Oda, Rona Ambrose

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This certainly rings true in the world of health policy: there’s a lot of talk, and the idea of change or reform is nice to think about, regardless of whether it ever happens. Recently, it seems that absolutely nothing is changing at all. Because for some reason we’re still debating about the needs of women in developing countries —and in particular we’re trying to decide if those women deserve access to safe and law-abiding abortions.

For just one second, lets forget the fact that Canadian women have this right and have had it for more than 40 years. Lets forget that it is, in itself, ridiculous for our government to have any say whatsoever over what happens in other countries, other than by providing advice and guidance through our own trial and error.

The Harper government was not saying, this week, that they would debate the legality of abortion. But by insisting that leaders at the G8 summit in Halifax remain silent on abortion while discussing other women’s health issues in developing countries, they placed a gag order on the issue.

This is indicative of not only of our foreign presence and international ideology, but of how the Conservatives in particularly see women in Canada, and especially in their own party. Watching Bev Oda take a strong stance against yet another women’s rights issue is becoming tiring. Last month it was debated if birth control would be talked during the meeting at all. Harper quickly jumped in the ring after protests took off.

I’d hate to say that women in the Conservative party are there as demographic placeholders, but it can often seem that way. With scandals surrounding former Conservative MPs Belinda Stronach and Rona Ambrose, I know more about the personal lives of our female MPs more than their politics—especially those politics pertaining gender issues.

And, as if Helena Geurgis needed more attention, the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women sent out a press release yesterday stating they’d like a review of the funding handed out under Ms. Guergis as Minister of the Status of Women. According to CRIAW President Judy White, many women’s advocacy groups were denied previously delegated funding this year:

“SWC has turned down a growing list of women’s groups this year, that they previously funded. Some are afraid they will lose more government funding if they speak out.”

“This is deeper than the government’s decision to eliminate funding for advocacy, lobbying and most research when they changed the SWC funding mandate 4 years ago… What could be more important than a project to ensure that all women can access shelters when they need refuge from oppressive and violent relationships?”

Through all this I’m left wondering: What are our women in government here for?

One would hope one part of their role would be to champion women’s health—and all that brings along. In a meeting drawing leaders from around the world to Canada with a focus on maternal health, I would have hoped those women elected to office (not to mention the men!) would have pushed harder for discussion and debate.