06/28/2010 09:57 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Promising Steps Toward International Women's Health

While the World Cup has united people around TV sets across the world over the past weeks, another more radical act of global unity took place. This past weekend the world's leading governments came together and talked about women. For the first time the Group of 8's annual summit, which took place in Canada's tourist and wine region of Muskoka, Ontario, elevated the importance of women and girls on the world stage by making maternal and child health the flagship commitment of its development agenda. This new commitment to women and children rightly aims to broadly address these health needs, and includes family planning among the essential health interventions for women.

Even better is that the recently concluded G-8 Summit is only one milestone in a recent spate of events and commitments focused on improving the health of women around the world. President Obama's Global Health Initiative, with leadership by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has pledged to take a "women- and girls-centered approach" to reforming U.S. global health programs. The administration has proposed the largest budget ever for maternal and child health and family planning programs. Moreover, Ban Ki-Moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, announced at the recent Women Deliver conference in Washington, DC, that the UN will unveil a Joint Action Plan for the health of women and children. And this September, the UN will hold a summit to take stock of the progress we've made in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). A sneak preview of the secretary-general's report could probably be summed up this way: we're failing to meet these goals, and we are failing women.

What these leaders have come to understand is a principle upon which Planned Parenthood has always stood: women's reproductive health care is a human right that knows no borders and is essential for the health and well-being of all people.

There is no doubt the Muskoka Initiative, as this G-8 commitment is known, is an important step forward. But there are many more steps to go. While the commitment identifies family planning among the interventions important to the health of mothers, it does not fully embrace comprehensive reproductive health. Unfortunately, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly asserted that these maternal health efforts would not include abortion. As we know, no effective maternal health improvements can occur without comprehensive reproductive health care, including access to safe and legal abortions. To ignore this is to ignore the estimated 20 million unsafe abortions that occur every year and the 70,000 women who die each year as a result. If we are to do all we can to save women's lives, access to safe abortion must be an essential component of any comprehensive maternal health initiative.

Moving beyond the Muskoka Initiative, we must fully fund maternal, newborn, and child health, including comprehensive reproductive health. Without a doubt, the decisions made at this G-8 meeting are backed up by meaningful financial commitments, but they do not go far enough. This is no surprise given economic conditions and the fact that foreign assistance dollars in every developed country are under greater scrutiny. Even in financially challenging times, women's health is a wise investment. We know that dollars spent on quality maternal health care are a much less costly and much more effective investment than spending money tending to the ills of women and infants who did not benefit from adequate maternal health care. We know that investing in preventing unintended pregnancies saves money and saves lives, especially by preventing the need for unsafe abortions.

We must commend the members of the G-8 for their new commitments to women and girls, and I challenge these and all governments to keep the momentum going. Here in the United States, we can start with congressional appropriation for President Obama's global health budget request, and passage of the Global Democracy and Promotion Act, which would permanently repeal the Mexico City Policy, known as the "global gag rule." Around the globe, we need broad support for the emphasis on women's health and reproductive health care at the MDG Summit in September.

There is much more to do, but it is becoming clearer how we can create a world in which women's access to safe, quality health care is a reality, as true for women in the developing world, as it will be in rural and economically depressed America, and for generations of vacationers in Muskoka. And that give us yet another reason beyond World Cup goals for the world to unite in cheers.