Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has apologized to his caucus and taken the blame for an embarrassing defeat of a Liberal motion on maternal health that drew opposition from anti-abortion MPs within his own party, Liberal sources told CBC News.  

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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff answers a question from the media on Parliament Hill. ((Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press))

Ignatieff and Liberal whip Roger Cuzner faced heavy criticism over an embarrassing showing Tuesday in the House, where a motion tabled by Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae was defeated in a 144-138 vote.

The motion called on the government to include a broader range of programs, including contraception, in the maternal health initiative for developing countries it is presenting at this summer's G8 summit. It was supported by all three opposition parties and was designated a "whipped " vote by the Liberals, meaning all Liberal MPs were expected to turn out and vote with the party line or face discipline.

 

Motion introduced by Liberal MP Bob Rae

That, in the opinion of the House, the government's G8 maternal and child health initiative for the world's poorest regions must include the full range of family planning, sexual and reproductive health options, including contraception, consistent with the policy of previous Liberal and Conservative governments, and all other G8 governments last year in L'Aquila, Italy;   

that the approach of the Government of Canada must be based on scientific evidence, which proves that education and family planning can prevent as many as one in every three maternal deaths; and   

that the Canadian government should refrain from advancing the failed right-wing ideologies previously imposed by the George W. Bush administration in the United States, which made humanitarian assistance conditional upon a "global gag rule" that required all non-governmental organizations receiving federal funding to refrain from promoting medically sound family planning.

The motion was defeated, however, when several Liberal MPs who felt the wording of the motion implied support of abortion failed to show up for the vote and three (John McKay, Paul Szabo and Dan McTeague) explicitly voted against it. Liberal MP Gurbax Malhi abstained.

In a meeting with his caucus, Ignatieff acknowledged further consultation should have taken place with MPs, sources within the party, speaking on condition of anonymity, told CBC News. Cuzner also apologized during the meeting for his handling of the vote, the sources said.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday morning following the caucus meeting, Ignatieff would only say he would not discuss "internal matters" publicly and insisted Cuzner would handle the matter.

"Those are matters of internal discipline, and we'll be dealing with them," Ignatieff said of the rogue MPs after what he said was a "good and frank" discussion with his caucus. He also denied the defeat marked the beginning of a full-scale caucus revolt.

"I don't think my troops are shooting at me," he said.

Sources also told CBC News that Rae, Ignatieff's former leadership rival, did not write the motion but was asked to front it in the House of Commons.

MPs felt abortion implied in wording of motion

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Liberal MP Dan McTeague, who opposes abortion, will face 'internal discipline' after he and other Liberals skipped a vote in the House and helped defeat the party's own motion. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Some Liberals had called for Ignatieff to take a hard line against the dissenting MPs, pointing out that the word "abortion" wasn't even in Tuesday's motion and that promoting a woman's right to contraception is a long-standing and central belief among party members.

Cuzner's actions also drew scrutiny, seeing as the party knew in advance that four Liberal MPs would be absent, yet only one Liberal MP, Mario Silva, had his vote "paired" with that of a Conservative MP. (Vote pairing is an agreement to have the votes of two MPs from opposing parties recorded on opposite sides of an issue to cancel the effect of an absence.)

Liberal MPs who either opposed or missed the vote and were willing to discuss the matter on Wednesday expressed unease about the motion's language.

"The motion did not specifically talk about abortion, but there was sufficient inference," said Albina Guarnieri, who opposes abortion and skipped the vote. "That's why some people stayed away, myself included." 

MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj, who is also opposed to abortion and missed the vote, said he, too, was uncomfortable with the motion's wording. He said he had permission to stay away from the vote and continued with committee work.

While not specifically mentioning abortion, Rae's motion called on the government to refrain from advancing the "global gag rule" policies of the former U.S. administration of George W. Bush, which withheld international humanitarian assistance from groups that perform abortions or provide information about the procedure. Within days of taking office, U.S. President Barack Obama ended the ban.

Ignatieff defended the content of the motion, saying it forced the Conservative government to say it has no clear policy on maternal health.

"I think the position of the party, which I reaffirmed this morning, and the general affirmation inside the caucus, that we will reaffirm in government, is that Canada must stand behind the reproductive rights of women overseas," he said.  

Motion defeat 'a discouraging moment': NDP's Layton

On Tuesday, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda derided the motion as anti-American and an attempt to reopen the abortion debate. She reiterated the government has not "closed doors" against any maternal health options, including contraception.

Ignatieff faced ridicule ahead of the vote from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who said Ignatieff was "too clever by half" in his attempt to draw out divisions among the Conservatives, only to split his own caucus.

NDP Leader Jack Layton, whose party supported the motion, called its defeat at the hands of a few Liberals a "discouraging moment in the Commons" and insisted his party will continue to press for family planning in the government's G8 initiative.

Harper announced late last year that Canada, as the host of the G8 meeting in June, would champion maternal and child health in developing countries. Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon reversed himself last week after initially declaring that Canada's proposal to the G8 would not include family planning.

With files from Julie Van Dusen, Sharon Musgrave, Emmanuelle Latraverse and Rosemary Barton