Canada will fund an organization that provides family planning services around the world — but only in countries where abortion is illegal in most cases, CBC News has learned.
International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda has decided to approve a proposal by the International Planned Parenthood Federation to provide sex education and contraception in five developing countries.
Planned Parenthood, which provides an array of sexual and reproductive health services, including abortions, abortion counselling and training for providers, is getting the federal funding after Oda let the agency's previous request sit on her desk for a year without a response, and after a Conservative MP told an anti-abortion group that the government wouldn’t be giving the organization any money.
Oda's decision to approve Planned Parenthood's proposal comes more than a year after Canada was embroiled in controversy over whether to fund abortions as part of a G8 commitment to improve maternal health in developing countries.
The proposal gets around the thorny issue of abortion by asking for money for sex education and contraception services, and does not include abortion services.
The funding is worth $6 million over three years for Planned Parenthood to work in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Mali, Sudan and Tanzania, where abortions are illegal except in cases where the mother's life is at risk.
A spokesman for International Planned Parenthood said Thursday that he was excited to hear about the funding, but that the group hasn't heard "a whisper" about it from the Canadian International Development Agency, Oda's department.
The funding proposal was resubmitted after the 2011 election, Paul Bell said. It had been revised one more time and the organization was waiting for a response.
"I think what we’re talking about with the programs is really a big upscaling of family planning programs and women’s health programs," Bell said. "Certainly those countries … are some of the highest-need countries in the world."
In an email Thursday night, Oda's spokesman said CIDA told the group their proposal was approved.
"Today, International Planned Parenthood Federation has been informed that its application for funding has been approved under the Maternal, Newborns and Child Health commitment," Justin Broekema said in a statement.
Funding not ruled out
During the federal election campaign, Saskatchewan Conservative MP Brad Trost told the Saskatchewan ProLife Association that thanks in part to petitions from the group, the federal government had defunded Planned Parenthood International.
Planned Parenthood later said it had received no official word on its requests for funding made in 2009 or 2010.
Asked in April why the group should be defunded, Trost said, "Because it supports abortion."
In a statement at the time, Oda didn’t rule out approving the group's application. Both she and a spokesman for the prime minister said it was possible to get the money if the application fit the government's rules.
"If Planned Parenthood submits an application that falls within the government's parameters for the G8 Muskoka Initiative, there will be funding," Oda said.
Planned Parenthood had been waiting for more than a year and assumed it had been cut off, a spokesman said at the time.
Dimitri Soudas, then spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said the government would work with "organizations like International Planned Parenthood that will focus [their] energy and efforts on the criteria that we have laid out."
Asked whether allowing access to abortion formed part of the government's funding criteria, Soudas replied: "No, it does not."
Maternal health questions
Opposition MPs raised questions about the maternal health funding for months ahead of the 2010 G8 summit, but Conservative cabinet ministers refused to say how the abortion funding ban would work.
Money for maternal health services, for example, could cover programs that train doctors and other health workers, counsel women on reproductive health and rights, buy equipment for clinics, or build clinics. Critics say it's hard to sort out what would be used indirectly to perform or counsel an abortion.
Officials said Canada has never directly funded abortions through its aid. Planned Parenthood has received Canadian funding in the past and in 2009 and 2010 applied to renew its funding. The group never got a response but applied again in 2011 with the proposal that has now been approved.
Oda said ahead of the G8 summit that the government was working under the definition of maternal health used by groups like the World Health Organization, but other G8 ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted the funding had to cover abortion services.
"If we're talking about maternal health, you cannot have maternal health without reproductive health. And reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortion," Clinton said in March 2010.
Harper was forced to address the issue at one of his campaign events in April following Trost's comments, but wouldn't say on what side of the debate he fell.
"This is not the priority of the Canadian people, or of this government," the prime minister said. "The priority is the economy, that's what we are going to focus on."
Harper announced $82 million in funding for 28 maternal and child-health projects Tuesday at the UN. The money is part of the $1.1 billion Canada committed at last year’s G8 summit in Muskoka.