Catholic bishops say Trudeau playing politics with abortion in foreign aid

Catholic leaders are criticizing the Trudeau government for allowing "political ideology" to dictate its advocacy of abortion rights in its new feminist international development policy.

Letter to foreign affairs minister criticizes policy speech and decision to direct aid to reproductive rights

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland set out the broad themes of Canada's foreign policy in a speech last month. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is criticizing the Liberal government's focus on abortion rights. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Catholic leaders are criticizing the Trudeau government for allowing "political ideology" to dictate its advocacy of abortion rights in its new feminist international development policy.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is also questioning Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for spending hundreds of millions more on the issue than on famine in Africa, and the emphasis on family planning that came when International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau unveiled Canada's retooled foreign aid policy.

Trudeau had told Bibeau in her mandate letter that the continued policy should be "driven by evidence and outcomes, not ideology, including by closing existing gaps in reproductive rights and health care for women."

However, in a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland in response to her June 6 foreign policy speech, Bishop Douglas Crosby said the Liberal policy is also ideologically based.

"In these uncertain times, when Canada's voice and leadership do matter on everything from climate change to global peace, political ideology cannot be allowed to dictate foreign policy and to override common sense and our humanitarian responsibilities to those in need," Crosby, the president of the organization, wrote.

Crosby questioned Trudeau's announcement earlier this year to earmark $650 million toward abortion and sexual reproductive rights when the government has spent $119.25 million towards famine relief in South Sudan, Yemen, northeast Nigeria and Somalia.

With 20 million people at risk of starvation, the United Nations has called the four-country African crisis the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.

"Should this unfolding disaster not have prompted the prime minister to prioritize relief and aid over politicking at the lavish expense of hardworking taxpayers in Canada?"

Crosby said that with so many people from different backgrounds and religions, there is no consensus in Canada over abortion, and to state that "there is universal agreement on a single set of Canadian values itself is contrived."

Sexual and reproductive health

Adam Austen, a spokesman for Freeland, reiterated the minister's unequivocal stance on the issue laid out in her speech last month, saying "women's rights are human rights."

"This includes the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls, and the right to safe and legal abortion," he said.

"The empowerment of women and girls everywhere in the world begins with their right to be in control of their bodies."

Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau launched Canada's new Feminist International Assistance Policy in Ottawa last month. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The bishops had also written to Bibeau in March to raise concerns about the government's plans to fund sexual and reproductive health.

"Safe, reliable and high-quality family-planning services, when used effectively, should reduce the recourse to abortion, decrease the number of unplanned pregnancies and improve the health and rights of women," Bibeau's reply stated.

During public consultations on its development policy, Bibeau said the government received "a strong message" about the need to scale up access to increased health services, including abortion.

Abortion has proved controversial in Canadian development policy in the past.

The previous Conservative government faced criticism after it refused to fund any projects that offered abortion services as part of its maternal, newborn and child health initiative.

The Liberals maintained the initiative, which aims to reduce the death of pregnant women and their newborns, but allowed funding for family planning, including abortion.