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Former prime minister Paul Martin, shown at the Liberal leadership convention in Vancouver in May 2009, has criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper's foreign policy in the lead-up to the G8 and G20 summits this weekend. ((Adrian Wyld/Associated Press))

A former prime minister is criticizing the current prime minister’s signature maternal health initiative as Stephen Harper is set to host two major world summits back to back.

Former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, who as finance minister promoted and helped establish the G20 which meets in Toronto this weekend, says Harper should have included abortion in his flagship policy proposal for the G8, which meets Friday north of the city.

"Regardless of what your position is on abortion, you've got to understand that in a huge number of these cases, some people say the majority of these cases, the mother's health is at risk, " Martin said in a videotaped interview recorded in April for the online publication The Mark.

"And so, if what you're talking about in this particular instance [is maternal health], you have to include abortions," Martin said.

Harper has ruled out any funding of abortion in his maternal health initiative, which his government will unveil as G8 leaders gather Friday in Huntsville.

In the 2005 election campaign Martin campaigned on "a woman's right to choose" and accused Harper of wanting to roll back abortion rights in Canada.

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The divisive issue has dogged the Harper government ever since it announced its plans to take the lead on a global health initiative. The government has said it will focus on clean water and vaccinations to improve the lives of girls and women.

Martin also argued Canadian policymakers should not suggest that just because Canada doesn’t fund abortions, safe abortions will be available by other means.

"So Canada decides to do one thing and a bunch of countries decide they're going to include abortions; that's acceptable," Martin said.

"But don't do that on the basis that we think Africa has got modern hospitals spread throughout those villages and those abortions could take place in safe conditions because that is not the case. And that is the reason I think abortions should be included."

Martin went further in what amounts to unprecedented criticism from a former prime minister, by attacking Harper's decision to make the initiative a G8 project, when the G8 is all but defunct.

"The G8 has got a limited life. I don't know when its due date is. It may last a year, it may last two years, it may last three years. But I don't think there's any doubt that when the G20 continues to mature, that's where the action's going to be. [Maternal health] has to be an issue at the G20. It's got to be part of the final communiqué if we want it to live."

Martin then took a shot at Harper's domestic policy toward First Nations people.

"We have a huge maternal health problem … at home among aboriginal Canadians," he said, accusing Harper's government of "turning its back on the maternal health problems and the children problems of Canadian aboriginals."

Martin went to great lengths in the interview to emphasize his own experience travelling in Africa. In recent years, Harper has turned Canada's aid policy away from Africa toward a focus on the Americas.