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Cardinal Marc Ouellet calls abortion a 'moral disorder,' but says it is not up to him to judge a woman who has one. ((Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press))

One of Canada's leading Catholic officials, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, is calling for a reopening of the debate over abortion and legislation guaranteeing legal rights for fetuses.

Ouellet, the primate of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada, sought to clarify his position on the issue in a news conference Wednesday in Quebec City, where he is archbishop.

Earlier this month, Ouellet prompted a firestorm of criticism from politicians and women's groups when he called abortion a "moral crime" as serious as murder — even in cases where the pregnancy was the result of rape.

'I am not making a judgment on the woman ... because the woman has to take her decision in light of her personal circumstance.'—Cardinal Marc Ouellet

On Wednesday, Ouellet told reporters he was "a bit surprised by the magnitude of the reaction" to his comments, which he said had been "twisted" and taken out of context.

"They took one small phrase and created a weapon … to discredit me," Ouellet said.

Abortion a 'moral disorder'

But Ouellet, accompanied by Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, took only a small step back from his controversial position.

He called abortion a "moral disorder," but said the circumstances must be taken into account.

"I am not making a judgment on the woman ... because the woman has to take her decision in light of her personal circumstance," Ouellet said. "Only God knows all the elements of her final judgment of conscience.

"And if she goes to abortion, I will help her afterwards and even more because she will need lots of support because of the consequences of the fact."

Ouellet denounced the "legal void" surrounding the rights of fetuses, an omission he blamed for what he called the high number of abortions performed each year in Canada.

He called on the different levels of government to provide pregnant women with support in order to help reduce the abortion rate.

"We could reduce the number [of abortions] by half if only women in distress because of an unexpected pregnancy were welcomed, informed and accompanied with solidarity and compassion in their choice," said Ouellet.

'[The cardinal] has to remember that these are really difficult choices and he is not helping anyone.' —Ainsley Jenicek, Quebec Federation for Planned Parenthood

The cardinal, once touted as a possible candidate to become pope, also called for legislation to limit how late in a pregnancy an abortion could be performed.

In Belgium, with only rare exceptions, abortions are not performed later than 12 weeks into a pregnancy, Ouellet said.

As a result, he said, in 2007 there were 18,000 abortions in the country with a population of 10 million people, compared with more than 26,000 in Quebec, which has a population of eight million.

"The debate on abortion is open," he said. "And we must not be afraid."

Women's groups scorn debate

The cardinal's position "just contributes to the guilt that people feel, which is a very heavy burden for the women who have to make these choices," said Ainsley Jenicek, a project manager with the Quebec Federation for Planned Parenthood, which is vocal on women's health issues.

Jenicek said regional shortages of services for women coping with unexpected pregnancy should not be used to pressure them into carrying their fetuses to term. The family planning group is also opposed to legislation that would block late-term abortions, said Jenicek.

"It is just a matter of respecting people's choices and trusting that they are making the best possible decisions for their life circumstances — that is what it comes down to," she said.

The head of the Quebec Federation of Women, Alexa Conradi, said support for pregnant women is best provided by psychologists or other health care professionals.

"When a woman if facing a decision to maintain or terminate a pregnancy, she does not need ideological pressure from anybody, she just needs support," said Conradi.

Ouellet's initial comments provoked an outcry from politicians, including Quebec's minister for the status of women, Christine St-Pierre, who said the debate over abortion has been resolved.

"Never will we women, and many men in Quebec, go back to the days of knitting needles," said St-Pierre, referring to the types of crude instruments used in the days of clandestine back-alley abortions.

"[Abortion] is a choice that is a personal one," the minister said, "and we as a society have a duty to make sure that things are done in a safe way."