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Briefing notes prepared for Minister of International Co-operation Bev Oda suggest access to safe abortion services could save lives in developing countries. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

The Conservative government turned its back on advice from its own civil servants when it excluded abortion funding in its G8 maternal- and child-health initiative, The Canadian Press has learned.

Briefing notes prepared in January by the Canadian International Development Agency for International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda suggest access to safe abortion services could save numerous lives in developing countries.

Abortion was among the measures CIDA felt were necessary to meet the ambitious maternal health goals Ottawa plans to promote at the upcoming meeting of world leaders in Ontario next month.

The access-to-information document obtained by The Canadian Press was prepared for a late-January meeting between Oda and non-governmental organizations — like World Vision and UNICEF  — that work in the maternal and child health field.

Under the heading "How can we make it happen?" the CIDA document lists a series of measures to help Ottawa achieve its much-vaunted maternal health initiative and cites a range of family planning services including "safe abortion services (when abortion is legal)."

Each year, some 500,000 women die during pregnancy or while giving birth and nine million children die before they reach the age of five, according to CIDA statistics compiled for the minister.

The document, approved by CIDA president Margaret Biggs, also highlights that about 2.5 million teenagers have unsafe abortions each year and tend to be more seriously affected by complications.

"Globally, complications after unsafe abortions cause 13 per cent of maternal deaths," the briefing note states, adding that a maternal health initiative promoting safe abortion methods would achieve "a significant decrease in the global number of unwanted births and of half the number of unsafe abortions."

But three months after the minister was handed those statistics by CIDA, she confirmed Canada's contribution to the initiative wouldn't include funding of abortions.

No comment from minister

Oda spokeswoman Jessica Fletcher said via email the minister wouldn't comment on the contents of the briefing notes. Requests for an interview with CIDA representatives went unanswered.

CARE Canada president Kevin McCort, who was at the January meeting with Oda, said abortion was never mentioned because the NGOs present simply believed it was implied.

"Nobody was ever explicit about it and that may well be why it suddenly became an issue, because it wasn't dealt with on the table clearly," he said.

"I think there's a lesson for everybody in there that if you're negotiating for something, put it all out there so that no one can claim that they weren't aware, that they weren't told."

Canada never directly funded abortions in developing countries, Biggs told a parliamentary committee earlier this month. Instead, the country's aid funds were handed directly to NGOs and foreign governments that used their discretion in distributing the money.

Canada, as host of the upcoming G8 summit, chose to target child and maternal health as part of the Millennium Development Goals agreed upon by world leaders in the first part of the decade.

The goals include reducing maternal mortality globally by 75 per cent.