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Canada's escalating debate on abortion

Prime Minister says Canada won't fund abortions in developing countries, but domestic laws allow for abortions covered by government insurance.

It began when he recently announced he would make improving the health of mothers in poor countries the centerpiece of the G8 summit, to be held in Toronto in June. Part of the reason for the surprise announcement, analysts suggested, was to soften the image of Harper’s party and make inroads with women voters in Canada.

Almost immediately, it began to backfire. First, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon attracted the criticism of aid groups by stating that the programs Canada would fund in developing countries would exclude birth control.

Days later, with criticism mounting, Harper reversed course, saying contraception could be part of the initiative. But he triggered an even livelier debate by suggesting that abortion would not be part of the package.

“Canadians want to see their foreign aid money used for things that will help save the lives of women and children in ways that unite the Canadian people rather than divide them,” Harper told the House of Commons.

By the time he made that statement, his government had already been publicly rebuked by the United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She did so during a G8 meeting of foreign ministers near Ottawa, with an embarrassed Cannon sitting by her side.

“You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health,” Clinton told a news conference. “And reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortion.”

The comments reflect Clinton’s strongly held views on the matter, and the Obama administration’s rescinding of the Bush policy that steered foreign aid away from programs that included abortion.

Harper has since been insisting he doesn’t want to reopen the debate on abortion in Canada. But many have noted the contradiction between a foreign policy that rejects abortion for women in developing countries and Canadian laws that give women here access to abortions paid by government insurance.

The Liberal Party, the main opposition to Harper’s Conservatives, has tried to make the most of the issue. Led by their struggling leader, Michael Ignatieff, it tried to pass a motion in parliament demanding that the government “refrain from advancing the failed right-wing ideologies previously imposed by the George W. Bush administration in the United States.” But in a major embarrassment for Ignatieff, the motion was defeated when several of his own anti-abortion MPs stayed away from the vote.

Still, much was made last week of leading Canadian pollster, Frank Graves, advising the Liberals to launch a “culture war” against the Conservatives.

He described it as a battle of “cosmopolitanism versus parochialism, secularism versus moralism, Obama versus (Sarah) Palin, tolerance versus racism and homophobia, democracy versus autocracy.”

When the election comes — Harper’s refusal to release documents about Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan is the latest to threaten his government’s survival — it promises to be livelier than usual.