The federal government has disclosed for the first time that Canada will not fund abortions in its G8 child and maternal health-care initiative for developing countries.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced late in 2009 that Canada, as the host of the upcoming G8 meeting in June, would champion maternal and child health in developing countries.
But until Monday, no one in the government had disclosed whether abortion would be included in the corresponding programs Canada supports.
International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said the government would consider funding family planning measures such as contraception, but not abortion under any circumstances.
"We're saying that we're using the definition in our discussions of family planning, which does not include abortion," Oda told reporters on Monday in Halifax, where she was meeting with her G8 counterparts.
"We're not debating abortion; we're clarifying family planning."
Oda's comments reiterated those made earlier in the day by her parliamentary secretary, Conservative MP Jim Abbott, in response to a question from Bloc Québécois MP Johanne Deschamps.
The clarification follows months of confusion over whether abortion would be included in Harper's G8 initiative during which Oda and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon appeared to give contradictory answers.
In March, under questioning from the opposition, Harper would only say that the government would not be "closing doors against any options, including contraception."
Opposition parties have accused the government of deliberately muddying the waters of its position to hide the reversal of what has been Canada's position on maternal health in poor countries for almost three decades.
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.
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In March, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the health initiative should include access to safe and legal abortion.
But Canadian officials say they will instead focus the G8 plan on other measures aimed at improving the health of women and children in poor countries — including safe drinking water and vaccination programs.
Liberal MP Bob Rae said the government has taken an ideological stand on the issue.
"They just reopened the abortion debate," Rae told reporters outside the House of Commons. "We are saying to the countries that are the poorest: 'We won't apply the law that we have in Canada.'"
NDP MP Paul Dewar said the government has caused confusion with its lack of clarity ahead of the G8 meeting and that its position will cause problems with other G8 members at this summer's summit in Ontario's Muskoka region.
"It's just unusual to see the ignorance of a government that claims to be a member of the G8," Dewar said.
But Oda denied the government's position would create division within the G8, saying her counterparts all support Canada's initiative.
"There is no division on what it includes or not includes," she said. "Canada's initiative, that they support, is saving the lives of mothers and children under the age of five, and that does not mean supporting abortions."