When the Canadian government took on maternal, newborn and child health as its flagship program in 2010, it unwittingly waltzed into the contentious issue of abortion.

And though the government has expressed no desire to talk about abortion, the issue continues to rise, especially amid the inaugural global summit on maternal and child health this week, with critics demanding the government focus more on reproductive health.

in an exclusive TV interview with the CBC's Hannah Thibedeau, Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed why he's choosing not to fund global abortion services

"We're trying to rally a broad public consensus behind what we're doing, and you can't rally a consensus on that issue, as you know well in this country," he said.

"It's not only controversial here, it's controversial and often illegal in many recipient nations."

Harper doesn't agree with the suggestion that he is exporting his beliefs abroad to other countries by not funding abortion services.

"We're really not taking a position on that. We have taxpayers' money and we have great needs," he said to Thibedeau.

"And frankly, there's more than enough things that we can finance, including contraception, without getting into an issue that really would be extremely divisive for Canadians and donors."

Melinda Gates, who spoke with the CBC's Thibedeau alongside Harper, asked why women had to be put in a situation where they consider abortion in the first place.

"One of the things we don't invest in enough, as a world, are contraceptives. We put women in that situation because they don't have access and when you talk to them in the developing world, they say, 'I want that tool, I want that shot I used to get,'" she said.

"We can work upstream on these issues to help women where they are, so you don't ever put them in that situation, and to me, that's the smart investment to make."

Saving every woman?

But many, including Canada's opposition parties, disagree.

New Democratic Party critic for international development Hélène Laverdière challenged the government on its summit theme of "Saving Every Woman, Every Child."

"Well, there’s 47,000 women who die each year from unsafe abortions,” she said in an interview with CBC News.

"So, if we want to save every woman, we have to address that issue too.”

According to the World Health Organization, 21.6 million women experience an unsafe abortion worldwide each year. The 47,000 who die make up about 13 per cent of annual maternal deaths.

As part of Millennium Development Goal No. 5, which aims to reduce the maternal mortality rate by 75 per cent from 1990 to 2015, the United Nations secretary general came up with a global strategy for women and children's health. Among other things, it includes saving the lives of women who experience unsafe abortions.

But the hot button issue of abortion is not what critics are necessarily zeroing in on. Abortion just falls under the umbrella of reproductive and women's rights, which critics said have not been addressed nearly enough by the current government.

In a letter sent to Harper on May 28, the Canadian Association of Parliamentarians for Population and Development called on the government to support a "human rights-based, post-2015" plan that ensures gender equality and sexual education.

"Global parliamentarians recommend that women's reproductive health can only be achieved when the human rights of women, girls and youth are realized. Women do not only need health care when they're pregnant. Their overall health as girls, adolescents and youth determine the outcomes of pregnancy, post-partum and neonatal health and survival," the letter reads.