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A Sudanese woman holds her baby at the Zam Zam internally displaced persons camp in Al Fasher in April 2010. Prime Minister Stephen Harper says his government will not to fund abortions in its G8 child and maternal health-care initiative for developing countries. ((Zohra Bensemra/Reuters) )

Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended the government's decision not to fund abortions in its G8 child and maternal health-care initiative for developing countries, saying he wants to focus on non-divisive policies.

"Canadians want to see the foreign aid money used for things to help save the lives of women and children in ways that unite the Canadian people," Harper said Tuesday during question period in the House of Commons.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff led off question period in the House by accusing the government of reversing a 25-year-old position of consensus in Canada on the issue.

"You simply cannot promote reproductive health for women unless you respect a woman’s right to choose and unless you include access to safe and legal abortion," he said.

"How is it acceptable ... to have one policy at home for Canada and another abroad?"

For months, it was unclear whether abortion would be included in Harper's G8 initiative. In March, under questioning from the opposition, Harper would only say that the government would not be "closing doors against any options, including contraception."

But on Monday, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said the government would consider funding family planning measures such as contraception, but not abortion.

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae pointed out that thousands of young women have been raped in Congo, and asked if it is now the government's policy to deny those women access to abortion. 

NDP Leader Jack Layton also accused the government of imposing a "conservative morality agenda" and has decided to reopen the debate on abortion.

Harper repeated that the government's policy when it comes to maternal health respects definitions used by the World Health Organization and many other countries in the G8 and around the world.

"We understand that other governments, other taxpayers may do something different. We want to make sure our funds are used to save the lives of women and children and are used on the many many things that are available to us and, frankly, do not divide the Canadian population," Harper said.

International health and women's groups have also said any omission of abortion would be at odds with the G8's established goals at previous summits.

In March, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the health initiative should include access to safe and legal abortion.