Doctors Without Borders MD speaks on ethics

September 19, 2003

HAMILTON – You don’t need to be a flaming, bleeding-heart liberal or a limp- wristed lefty to see that it’s a man’s world when it comes to some basic privileges in life.

Take education. Two thirds of the planet’s 900 million illiterate people are women. No surprise, men set the world’s political agendas.

While almost half the labour force is female, only 13 per cent of lawmakers in the world’s 190 or so national governments are women.

Even a liberated place like Ontario has just 17 per cent female candidates for its Oct. 2 vote, which is the same percentage of women holding national government seats in the Americas and Europe.

So, besides beer in supermarkets, where has it gotten us?

I won’t elaborate on nasty wars or the hole in the ozone layer or the AIDS epidemic.

But did you know 100 million kids have died in the last 10 years since the Convention of the Rights of the Child, a widely-accepted international document, was signed to protect the most vulnerable among us?

OK, Eve had a role in us getting kicked out of Eden, and her daughters aren’t perfect either.

But the point is that what’s good for women is usually good for all of us. Conversely, when women get a raw deal, we all suffer because women tend to hold together the fabric of families, if not communities.

Which is why you should note Sept. 26 on your calendar, at least if you’re half interested in knowing what’s happening on this precariously spinning globe.

The place is the Royal Botanical Gardens Centre in Burlington and the event is McMaster University’s fifth annual International Women’s Health Symposium.

My wife Jean’s brainchild, it’s a day largely for health-care students and professionals interested in bringing their skills to the Third World.

But for my money, I’d go just to hear Dr. James Orbinski, a McMaster medical school graduate who has become the Rocky Balboa of Canada’s humanitarian aid workers.

Described as “a brave man accustomed to being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Orbinski’s honours include Canada’s highest civilian award, the Meritorious Service Cross, for his work in too many places to list here.

While president of Doctors Without Borders International, he also accepted the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the organization that now works in more than 60 countries.

Suffice it to say, this warm and genuine humanitarian thinker is a scrappy champion for people who have no voice. Which brings us back to women. Let’s look at just one concern, the half million moms who die annually in the developing world from pregnancy-related causes. Is that a health issue? Sure. And much more.

Orbinski focuses on the ethics of humanitarianism, which in his case involves breaking down the borders between medicine and politics. That’s important because it’s a sensible template to use with other problems, like those dead mothers. Tackle global ills by linking various disciplines.

For example, if a mom dies needlessly, it’s a health concern. But it’s also a political issue. And it’s a legal violation, considering her basic rights, supposedly protected by the UN Declaration of Human Rights, are not being upheld. If found negligent, her government, her community and her family could and should all be held accountable by an international community resolved to enforce basic standards already on the books. Taking that kind of borderless approach shows humanitarianism is less about simple charity and more about promoting change at various societal levels. Dissolved grassroots borders is what paved the road for some of history’s most significant reforms, involving things like slavery, civil rights and labour.

So as influential westerners, can we offer some direction? Absolutely, if we lose our paranoia about security and focus more on human dignity. And if we stopped thinking of the economy as the sun around which we all orbit. As Orbinksi aptly notes, even when economies have rising tides, all boats aren’t lifted. Some are capsized.

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September 19, 2003 • Posted in ,
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