Activists, UN call attention to reproductive health

Activists challenged Stephen Harper to make women's reproductive health a priority issue at next year's G8 and G20 summits during a press conference Wednesday.

Activists challenged Stephen Harper to make women's reproductive health a priority issue at next year's G8 and G20 summits during a press conference Wednesday.

Catherine MacDonald, executive director of Action Canada for Population and Development, said more than 500,000 women and girls around the world die each year from pregnancy-related problems. The World Health Organization estimates 70,000 of those deaths are due to unsafe abortions.

"This is a human rights issue that clearly matters to millions of people," MacDonald said in Ottawa. "This year, it's time for the leaders of the world to commit to the funding and to marshal the resources to make real progress."

MacDonald said one in 7,300 Canadian women die from complications in pregnancy and in childbirth, while in Afghanistan the rate is one in seven.

Contraception, education are key

MacDonald said contraception and education are keys to solving the problems women face worldwide.

ACPD's news conference coincided with the release of a UN report that suggested better family planning programs could help battle climate change. The State of World Population report, an annual document presented by the UN Population Fund, said making condoms and reproductive education more widely available could help curb emissions by slowing population growth.

The agency did not recommend countries set limits on how many children people should have but said: "Women with access to reproductive health services ... have lower fertility rates that contribute to slower growth in greenhouse gas emissions.   

"As the growth of population, economies and consumption outpaces the earth's capacity to adjust, climate change could become much more extreme and conceivably catastrophic," the agency said in its annual report.   

The world's population will likely rise from the current 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050, with most of the growth in less developed regions, according to a 2006 report by the United Nations.    

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, the UN Population Fund's executive director, told a news conference in London on Wednesday that global warming could be catastrophic for people in poor countries, particularly women.  

"We have now reached a point where humanity is approaching the brink of disaster," she said. 

'Alarmist and unhelpful'

On Wednesday, one analyst criticized the UN Population Fund's pronouncements as alarmist and unhelpful.  

"It requires a major leap of imagination to believe that free condoms will cool down the climate," said Caroline Boin, a policy analyst at International Policy Network, a London-based think-tank.     

The UN Population Fund acknowledged it had no proof of the effect that population control would have on climate change.

"The linkages between population and climate change are in most cases complex and indirect," the report said. 

MacDonald said merely encouraging women in developing countries to have smaller families would not help against climate change. As the report indicates, industrial countries produce the most greenhouse gases. Instead, giving impoverished women the ability to control how many children they have and how far apart to space them will help them take advantage of educational and economic opportunities.

"If women are empowered, they'll be able to get into the discussions and eventually help reverse some of the root causes of climate change," she said.

With files from The Canadian Press