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Canada's International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, December 9, 2015. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Canada's International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, December 9, 2015. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)


Ottawa gives new funding for international reproductive health program Add to ...

The federal government announced millions of dollars in new funding for the lead United Nations agency tasked with improving global reproductive health Monday, but none of the money will go to funding abortion services in recipient countries.

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said Canada will renew its support for the UN Population Fund’s (UNFPA) contraceptive-supplies program by providing $5-million. The former Conservative government funded its precursor, known as the Trust Fund for Commodities, until 2010. It then emphasized other maternal, newborn and child health initiatives.

Ottawa also announced the implementation of the former Conservative government’s commitment to provide $11-million over five years to the UNFPA’S efforts to prevent adolescent pregnancies in Honduras, which has the second-highest rate of adolescent pregnancies in the Western hemisphere.

Ms. Bibeau said Canada will commit $15.6-million to the UNFPA’s annual 2016 budget. Canada has supported the organization for years.

“Ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and empowering women and girls is central to achieving gender equality,” Ms. Bibeau said. “This is why our government is proud to help address these critical health issues facing vulnerable young women, mothers and newborns around the world.”

However, none of the projects announced Monday will deal with abortion services, even in recipient countries where it is legal, according to Ms. Bibeau.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Monday, the minister said funding for abortion services abroad has never been brought up in consultations with partners and non-governmental organizations.

“We are … supporting in different ways, through different partners, numerous countries to improve their health system. Providing the service of safe abortion, maybe in some countries where it’s legal, it’s part of [reproductive health] and we’re not against it. This is a difference. But we’re not promoting it right now.”

When asked when the government will deal with the funding of abortion services, the minister said she didn’t have an exact date.

Ms. Bibeau said the government is currently reviewing Canada’s maternal, newborn and child-health commitment, and plans to eventually “build on it and enlarge it, and include everything related to reproductive health and rights.”

In their election platform, the Liberals committed to “cover the full range of reproductive health services” under the Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Initiative, launched at the G8 summit in Muskoka, Ont., in 2010.

The previous Conservative government made the initiative a cornerstone of its international-development policy, but refused to include money for abortion services in Canada’s commitment to the fund. In an interview with The Globe in May, 2104, then-prime minister Stephen Harper said the government excluded funding for abortion services because it is a “divisive” issue that is often illegal in countries receiving Canadian development aid.

Ms. Bibeau’s mandate letter calls on the minister to ensure that Canada’s focus on maternal, newborn and child health is “driven by evidence and outcomes, not ideology, including by closing existing gaps in reproductive rights and health care for women.” In an e-mail to The Globe last week, her office said the inclusion or exclusion of certain health services, such as abortion, is under the purview of recipient countries, meaning Canadian development aid could be used to fund abortions.

Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, a pro-choice charity, told The Globe last week that family planning, including access to abortion services, is a key part of overall maternal health efforts.

“Safe abortion is an indispensable part of the package of interventions that are needed, not just in humanitarian settings but in all settings, for safeguarding sexual and reproductive health,” executive director Sandeep Prasad said.

In addition to funding for family planning, the group would also like to see the government fund family-planning advocacy overseas and establish a global policy on sexual and reproductive rights. Mr. Prasad said International Women’s Day, which is Tuesday, would be a perfect time for the government to announce these measures.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 99 per cent of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries. The WHO also says nearly 86 per cent of unsafe abortions worldwide occur in developing countries each year and unsafe abortions account for close to 13 per cent of all maternal deaths.

Ms. Bibeau made the announcement alongside Babatunde Osotimehin, a United Nations under-secretary-general and executive director of the UNFPA. Mr. Osotimehin is in Ottawa this week to mark International Women’s Day and draw attention to the needs of women and girls in humanitarian crises.

While none of money announced by the government on Monday will go toward funding abortion services in recipient countries, Mr. Osotimehin said “the resources we are getting today [ARE] directed at saving the lives of women.”

Speaking to The Globe last week, Mr. Osotimehin said he is impressed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s commitment to international development and the UN. He said he recently received a letter from Mr. Trudeau expressing Canada’s continued commitment to maternal, newborn and child health, including access to family planning services.

“This is the best letter I have received from any head of state in my life,” said Mr. Osotimehin. “I’m impressed because it brings vibrancy, it brings a new special presence to Canadian international relations, and I think there is a commitment … to actually make things happen.

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