October 21, 2013

The Honourable Christian Paradis, P.C., MP
Confederation Building Room 507
Ottawa, ONK1A 0A6

The Honourable Kellie Leitch, P.C., MP
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6

Dear Ministers Paradis and Leitch,

As organizations who are deeply committed to the rights of women and girls, we are very concerned by recent statements regarding the Government of Canada’s refusal to fund safe abortion services abroad, including in cases of rape and for young women and girls in forced marriages. This approach represents a serious setback on women’s human rights and the health and wellbeing of survivors of sexual violence and girls in early and forced marriages.

As many as 70%of women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and the first sexual experience among up to a third of them is forced. These women are twice as likely to experience unintended pregnancies. A significant proportion of these women and girls seek to terminate these pregnancies. Legal and social barriers and a lack of availability of quality services lead to the 22 million unsafe abortions that the WHO estimates take place each year, which result in 13% of the maternal deaths that occur worldwide. Death and injury from unsafe
abortion increases dramatically in conflict situations, where women and girls are often vulnerable to rape, sexual assault and other gender-based violence. In such situations, 20-50% of maternal deaths are related to unsafe abortion. UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon has made clear that “access to safe emergency contraception and services for the termination of pregnancies resulting from rape should be an integral component of any multisectoral response.”

The health needs, including the sexual and reproductive health needs, of the millions of married young women and girls must also be addressed by Canadian efforts on early and forced marriage overseas. Married girls are twice as likely to experience sexual violence, encounter unwanted pregnancies and seek to terminate those pregnancies. WHO evidence shows that restrictions placed on abortion services or the lack of availability of safe services do not reduce abortion rates. They force women and adolescent girls to turn to unsafe methods and unskilled providers which can result in permanent disability or death. These deaths are entirely preventable. In low and middle income countries, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19.

The majority of countries worldwide permit abortion either in cases of rape or to preserve a woman’s mental health. Globally, 134 countries permit abortion to preserve a woman’s mental health, in cases of rape and/or upon request. Twenty-four out of Canada’s thirty-three “countries of focus” for international development permit abortion on grounds of women’s mental health, rape or without restriction. Given the legal permissibility of abortion in most of these countries as well as in Canada, there is ample scope for Canadian international cooperation efforts to support increased access to safe and legal abortion services for women and adolescent girls as part of a comprehensive and integrated package of sexual and reproductive health services. According to the WHO: “Ready access to contraception and to early, safe abortion significantly reduces high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity; it prevents the costs currently imposed by unsafe abortion on health systems and on society and individuals.”

Canada’s refusal to provide women with access to safe abortion services constitutes not only a deeply troubling inconsistency with Canadian law, which permits abortion regardless of reason as an essential medical service, but 1Includes the 14 countries of the Caribbean programme.
also international agreements that Canada has made. In the ICPD Programme of Action and the Beijing Platform for Action, governments agreed and committed to provide women with a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortion. Failing to provide women and adolescent girls with access to a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health services, which includes safe abortion, denies them their human rights, including their fundamental rights to life, to health, to bodily autonomy, to decide freely
about the number and spacing of children, to self-determination, to freedom from torture, and to freedom from discrimination as well as the right to be protected from violence. By insisting that Canadian funds cannot be used to fund access to safe abortion services, Canada is complicit in the continued violation of women’s and girls’ human rights overseas.

We call on the Canadian government to:
1. Include access to safe abortion services as part of the package of sexual and reproductive health services funded by Canadian international cooperation initiatives;
2. Support effective strategies to ensure that survivors of sexual violence and young women and girls in early and forced marriage have access to a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortion; and
3. Produce clear policy for Canada’s international initiatives that adopts a human rights-based approach to sexual and reproductive health.

The lives of women around the world, particularly survivors of sexual violence and married young women and girls, depend on their access to a life-saving service. Canada can be a leader on these issues: let’s not let women and girls down.

The undersigned organizations: