harper-cp-8338581

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says birth control will be an option in the international maternal-health initiative. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

Birth control won't be excluded after all from the Conservative government's new maternal health intitiative for developing countries.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper clarified the government's position on the foreign aid program Thursday, two days after Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon insisted that contraception would not be part of it.

"We are not closing doors against any options, including contraception," Harper said in French in the Commons. "But we do not want a debate here or elsewhere on abortion."

Harper announced earlier that Canada, as the host of the upcoming G8 meeting, would champion maternal and child health in developing countries.

On Tuesday, Cannon told the Commons foreign affairs committee that this initiative "does not deal in any way, shape or form with family planning."

Opposition MPs immediately slammed the government over the issue, accusing it of being blinded by a social conservative ideology. They argued that the promotion of contraception would save more lives, by reducing unwanted pregnancies, deaths from unsafe abortions and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

On Wednesday, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda seemed to dodge questions about the issue, repeating the government's line that the initiative is "about saving the lives of mothers and children" and offering no details.

On Thursday, Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said the Conservatives were contradicting a G8 summit communiqué of last year that included a commitment to "voluntary family planning" and "sexual and reproductive health care." He said Canadian foreign policy was being "hijacked by the tea partiers."

Then Oda told the Commons the government has said all along it would not close the door on any option, including contraception, to save the lives of mothers and children.

Even Cannon, appearing later in the day on CBC's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon, denied the government was backtracking from its position on the maternal health program. He said his comments before the foreign affairs committee were in response to the question of what the government plans to do in the context of the G8.

"There are two things here," he said. "Let's not confuse the things. I'm responding to the G8 theme, right. This is what we want to be able to do. We want to be able to go and help those people who are dying. because they’re not being fed correctly. So that is what we want to do.  

"Minister Oda has said yes, that is exactly what we want to do within the cadre of her other programs, within the framework of the other development issues that she works with. What she has said is also she’s not excluding this idea of going forward with contraception."

Before the day was over, however, Cannon admitted that his original comments about the program did not reflect government policy.

"I'm not saying I was misquoted, I was quoted perfectly," Cannon told CTV News. "And I did made a mistake in making that determination. It wasn't what should have been said."

NDP Leader Jack Layton said he welcomed the apparent change in the government's position.

"We're glad to see that there's a recognition now that contraception certainly cannot be excluded," he said. "It's, in fact, a vitally important part of protecting women's health, particularly in the poorest countries of the world.

"Although what the prime minister said was that it wasn't being ruled out, but does that mean it will be funded? He wouldn't answer that question."

With files from The Canadian Press