A Liberal motion to include a broader range of family planning programs, including contraception, in a maternal health initiative for developing countries, was defeated 144-138 in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
The motion was supported by all three opposition parties, but fell when a number of pro-life Liberal MPs failed to show up and three voted against it: John McKay, Paul Szabo and Dan McTeague. MP Gurbax Malhi abstained, while Albina Guarnieri, who opposes abortion, was absent from the House during the vote.
Other Liberal MPs who would almost certainly have supported the motion, had they been in Ottawa, include: Anita Neville, Gerard Kennedy, Andrew Kania, Borys Wrzesnewskyj, Alan Tonks, Marlene Jennings, Joe Volpe, Lawrence MacAuley, Stéphane Dion, Mario Silva and Jim Karygiannis.
It was a whipped vote, which means all caucus members had to vote with the party's position or face consequences.
"The motion tonight is that we were simply asking for the government of Canada to commit to the position that Canada has held for 25 years, which is to defend women's right of access to the full range of reproductive health services overseas," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff told reporters after the vote.
The Liberals' problems were compounded when a handful of members proceeded to get confused about how they were to vote on the next measure and accidentally voted in favour of the supplementary estimates attached to the budget. Once they realized their error, the MPs tried to vote against it. Finally, Speaker Peter Milliken allowed the MPs' nay votes to be counted.
The bungled vote signalled things are going "from bad to worse" for Ignatieff and the Liberal Party, said PMO spokesman Dimitri Soudas.
"There's so much confusion in Liberal ranks these days, Michael Ignatieff's Liberals don't know if they are coming or going! In any case, we thank those Liberal MPs for their support of our Conservative government on an important confidence motion tonight," Soudas said, in reference to the supplementary estimates vote.
The motion tabled by Liberal Foreign Affairs critic Bob Rae said Canada's maternal health proposal to G8 nations 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 refrain from the "failed right-wing ideologies" of former U.S. president George W. Bush.
The initiative must include "the full range of family planning, sexual and reproductive health options, including contraception," the motion says, describing such a policy as consistent with previous Canadian governments and other G8 nations in last year's summit in Italy.
Co-operation Minister Bev Oda dismissed the motion as an attempt to reopen the abortion debate and said it contains "rash, extreme anti-American rhetoric."
The motion follows an embarrassment for the Conservatives last week over Prime Minister Stephen Harper's maternal health initiative. Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon was forced to reverse himself after initially declaring that Canada's proposal to the G8 would not include family planning.
Harper announced late last year that Canada, as the host of the upcoming G8 meeting in June, would champion maternal and child health in developing countries.
Two days after Cannon misspoke at a parliamentary committee last Tuesday, Harper declared that the government "was not closing doors against any options, including contraception" and did not want to instigate a debate on abortion in the House or anywhere else.
While not specifically mentioning abortion, Rae's motion refers to a so-called "global gag rule" — the ban implemented by the Bush administration that prohibited funding for international groups that perform abortions or provide information about the procedures to women abroad. Within days of taking office, U.S. President Barack Obama reversed the ban.
PM flip-flopped on family planning: Ignatieff
During Tuesday's question period, Ignatieff said the motion reflects the policy of Canadian governments for the last 25 years, including Harper's, citing the communiqué signed by Harper during last year's G8 summit.
Ignatieff accused the prime minister of changing his story on whether his government would support family planning in developing countries.
"First, he said no to family planning, then he said 'Yes, maybe,' " Ignatieff said. "Nobody actually knows where this government is."
Harper fired back that Ignatieff was being "too clever by half" with the issue, only to create divisions within his own ranks.
"The fact of the matter is Canadian people want to do what they can, cost effectively, to save the lives of mothers and children," the prime minister told the House.
"I'd encourage the Liberal Party to worry about saving the lives of mothers and children and not about playing petty politics."
Chance 'to clear the air'
Earlier in the day, Rae said the government has refused to acknowledge scientific evidence that shows reducing deaths of women during childbirth in developing countries is inextricably linked to the availability of family planning.
"This is an opportunity for the government to clear the air and vote for the resolution, making it very clear, that we’re not going to allow ideology to trump science," he told the House.
Oda described the Liberal motion as a "transparent attempt to reopen the abortion debate that we have clearly said we have no intention to getting into."
She insisted the government understands the urgency of ensuring that women can have a safe, healthy pregnancy, and she cited statistics suggesting that as many as 80 per cent of deaths during childbirth are easily preventable by providing basic needs such as clean water and access to trained health-care workers.
Liberal MP David McGuinty dismissed Oda's criticism that the motion is anti-American, saying the Conservatives will do anything to distance themselves from the Republican ideology that they've embraced for years.
"It hurts," he said. "They don't like it because we're telling the truth. They'll seize on anything that will allow them to hide their real ideology."
Liberal MP Albina Guarnieri was absent from the House during the vote and did not abstain, as originally reported.Oct 18, 2013 1:09 AM ET