The head of the Canadian International Development Agency says her agency's policy hasn't changed, despite the federal government's position that Canada will not fund any maternal health initiatives that involve abortion.

Speaking to a parliamentary committee in Ottawa on Tuesday, Margaret Biggs restated the government's position that it will focus on nutrition and strengthening health-care systems in the developing world with its G8 maternal health initiative.

When Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae asked Biggs to clarify the government's latest stand on the G8 initiative, Biggs responded that the plan rules out any funding for abortion-related activities.

But she added that CIDA's overall policy remains the same: it will continue to provide funds to countries where abortion is legal, and it will continue to fund agencies and aid groups that provide referrals for abortion.

"So what you're telling me there is going to be no change?" Rae asked.

"That's right," Biggs replied. "There's no change in the policy."

Nutrition, vaccination stressed

NDP MP John Rafferty questioned why the government would rule out access to a procedure that's been shown to save lives.

"Does it not make sense for our government and CIDA to try to reduce or eliminate the second leading cause of maternal death in developing countries?" Rafferty asked.

Biggs responded that improving health care means fewer women will die in childbirth, and the most effective way to prevent deaths from unsafe abortions is through access to contraception.

Jim Abbott, the parliamentary secretary to International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda, scolded the Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and his MPs for what he said was an attempt to reopen a debate with no relevance to maternal health.

"I have been dismayed and disappointed that Mr. Ignatieff and the Liberals have introduced a topic into this issue that has nothing to do with this issue," he told committee members.

Abbott emphasized that the government plans to improve maternal health by strengthening medical systems and improving access to vaccinations and proper nutrition.

Biggs also gave examples of building an obstetrical care hospital in Kandahar, polio eradication efforts in Afghanistan, helping rural poor people in Bangladesh and providing simple nutritional packages for mothers and children where needed.

Abortion funding question

But Rafferty said there's a "disconnect" between providing abortions in Canada but not doing it in other parts of the world.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced late in 2009 that Canada, as the host of the G8 meeting this June, would champion maternal and child health in developing countries.

Last week, Oda announced the federal government would consider funding family planning measures such as contraception but not abortion under any circumstances.

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.

With files from CBC's Louise Elliott