The Quebec City Archdiocese sought to clarify comments about abortion made by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the primate of the Catholic Church in Canada, following a firestorm of criticism from politicians and women's groups.

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Cardinal Marc Ouellet called abortion a crime as serious as murder. ((Francis Vachon/Canadian Press))

A spokesman for the Archdiocese said on Monday that Ouellet, who is also the archbishop of Quebec City, was simply stating Church doctrine when a reporter asked him about rape and abortion on the weekend.

Once touted as a possible candidate to become pope, Ouellet apparently had no intention of wading into a public policy debate when called abortion a "moral crime" as serious as murder and said it is never justified — even in cases of rape.

"There is a spin, saying the cardinal would like to re-criminalize [abortion], and this is not what he said," said Jasmin Lemieux-Lefebvre. 

'He was talking [about] a moral thing. This is a moral issue.' —Jasmin Lemieux-Lefebre, Quebec City Archdiocese

"He's not calling for re-criminalization. He was talking [about] a moral thing. This is a moral issue. He was not bringing this to the judicial level."

He said Ouellet wasn't condemning women and believes they need better care before and after abortions. He also said that when Ouellet discusses abortion as a political issue, he is merely urging Canada to offer some form of protection for the unborn.

"Canada is the only country in the world to have a complete legal vacuum on this issue," Lemieux-Lefebvre said in a statement.

"[Ouellet] leaves it to the politicians to explore a balanced solution from among the basket of options that exist elsewhere."

Ouellet made the comments while attending an anti-abortion rally in Quebec City on Saturday.

Ouellet said he understands that a sexually assaulted woman has been traumatized and must be helped and that her attacker must be held accountable.

"But there is already a victim," he said. "Must there be another one?"

Abortion issue resolved: minister

Ouellet's comments were denounced by several Quebec politicians.

Christine St-Pierre, the minister for the status of women, said the abortion issue has been resolved in the province.

'Never will we women, and many men in Quebec, go back to the days of knitting needles,' —Christine St-Pierre, Quebec Minister Responsible for the Status of Women

"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, and we as a society have a duty to make sure that things are done in a safe way."

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois, speaking at a weekend party policy conference, said she was "absolutely outraged" by the remarks and that Ouellet was trying to undo rights won decades ago.

"These remarks … take us back to [the] Middle Ages," said Alexa Conradi, president of the Quebec Women's Federation.

"At the same time, my concern really is at the federal level. There is movement of right wing Catholic groups to find different ways to re-criminalize abortion."

Conradi said that since the Conservatives came to power, there have been a number of — failed — attempts to get private member's bills passed that threaten Canadian women's legal rights to an abortion.

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Women will not tolerate a return to the days when knitting needles and other crude instruments were used to perform abortions, says Christine St-Pierre, Quebec's minister for the status of women. ((CBC))

Last Thursday, Ouellet attended a large anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill where activists and some MPs urged the federal government to reopen the debate on abortion in Canada.

But, the Harper government distanced itself from Ouellet's comments on Monday.

"It is well-known that I am pro-choice," Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Josée Verner told reporters in Quebec city on Monday.

"To suggest that we could reopen the debate on abortion is unacceptable."

Ouellet applauded the Harper government for its stance against funding abortions in the developing world.

Canadian officials say they will instead focus the G8 plan on other measures aimed at improving the health of women and children in poor countries — including safe drinking water, nutrition and immunization programs.

Verner said the government isn't looking for endorsements like the one from Ouellet.

The issue also dominated several Quebec newspaper columns on Monday.

In one particularly strident reaction, a Montreal La Presse columnist expressed his wish that Ouellet would die a slow and painful death.

Columnist Patrick Lagace compared Ouellet to the Iranian imam, Kazem Sedighi, who recently suggested scantily clad women were to blame for natural disasters. The column was titled, "The Scorn of Kazem Ouellet."

"We're all going to die," Lagace wrote. "Cardinal Ouellet will die someday. I hope he dies from a long and painful illness.…

"Yes, the paragraph I've just written is vicious. But Marc Ouellet is an extremist. And in the debate against religious extremists, every shot is fair game."

With files from The Canadian Press