Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says he will not abandon his fight to include reproductive rights in any Canadian-inspired G8 initiative to improve the health of mothers and their babies in the world's poorest countries.
But it was unclear Wednesday what sanctions, if any, would be brought to bear on those opponents of abortion within Mr. Ignatieff's own caucus who scuttled a Liberal motion on the issue Tuesday. The miscue apparently so rattled the Liberals that they went on to accidentally vote in favour of Conservative spending measures.
The incidents caused much embarrassment for Mr. Ignatieff and his caucus - and much mirth for the Tories, who suggested that the disarray on the Liberal benches indicated a lack of direction at the top.
"People are raising questions about leadership," Mr. Ignatieff said after a national caucus meeting Wednesday. "The key issue here is that this party reaffirms and has pressed with, in my view considerable courage, since January, the absolute fundamental importance for Canada to remain consistent in its support of reproductive health rights for women at home and abroad. And we will continue to do so."
Mr. Ignatieff told the closed-door meeting he accepts full blame for the debacle, sources said. The Liberal Leader's act of contrition was repeated by other senior caucus members. Rodger Cuzner, the Whip, did the same.
When asked by reporters whether the dissenting MPs - all long-time opponents of abortion - would be disciplined, Mr. Ignatieff said it was an internal party matter that he would be discussing with Mr. Cuzner and the caucus.
But one Liberal insider said there had been no repercussions. Instead, said the source, there was "a bit of a mea culpa" on the part of Liberal brass that Mr. Ignatieff was not told the vote could fail. And there is a new resolve, he said, to be "more cohesive in our strategies."
Meanwhile, the issue - which was raised by the Liberals to expose anti-abortion fervour among the Conservatives - could still prove problematic for the government, which has already reversed early statements that the maternal and infant health initiative would not include money for contraception.
The Tories must be careful not to alienate centrist Canadians - especially women - who largely favour legalized abortion, while appeasing members of their small-c conservative base who are largely opposed.
When asked yesterday if there is a federal government policy against funding groups that facilitate abortions in developing countries, a spokesman for Bev Oda, the Minister for International Co-operation, refused to give a direct reply.
"As we have said many times, the G8 initiative on maternal and child health is about making a positive difference and save the lives of mothers and children in the developing world, not about reopening the debate on abortion," Jean-Luc Benoît said in an e-mail. Asked to offer a yes or no answer to the question of whether the government would give money to a group that facilitates abortions, Mr. Benoît simply reiterated his first response.
The London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), which has received funding from the Canadian government dating back to the early 1980s, has not been told whether the money will be renewed. And Mr. Benoît would not say it is coming.
Paul Bell, a spokesman for the IPPF, said in a telephone interview that it is impossible to craft an initiative for maternal and child health without including family planning. And "abortion is [also]a part of it, definitely," said Mr. Bell. "At least 12 or 13 per cent of all maternal deaths are caused by unsafe abortion." Many times that number suffer complications from the procedure.
But Joanne McGarry, the executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, said it would be "a very disappointing development" if the Canadian government were to fund international programs that included abortions.
"There is so much to be done in foreign aid, for women and families, for women and children," said Ms. McGarry, "you could barely scratch the surface before you even got to the question of abortion or birth control."
With a report from Jane Taber