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Contraception a part of maternal-health plan, Harper says

This Tanzanian hospital is often so full it has to put two expectant mothers in the same bed.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/Robert Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Facing a squall of condemnation from aid groups and opposition politicians, Prime Minister Stephen Harper disavowed his foreign minister Thursday, promising that the federal government would include contraception programs in its maternal-health foreign-aid initiative.

"The government is seeking a dialogue with the countries of the G8 to save the lives of mothers and children all over the world," Mr. Harper said in the House of Commons. "We are not closing the door to any option, and that includes contraception, but we do not want a debate, here or elsewhere, on abortion."

The statement flatly contradicted previous statements of Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon and International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda.

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The reversal is the latest in a spate of climbdowns from a government that increasingly proposes controversial measures, only to swiftly retreat in the face of public criticism.

On Tuesday, Mr. Cannon told a House of Commons committee that the government's initiative to bolster maternal health in developing countries would not include funding for contraception, because "the purpose of this is to be able to save lives."

"I did make a mistake," a contrite Mr. Cannon told CTV Thursday. "…I said those words, but that's not what the policy is."

However, he insisted that this government would not fund new family planning initiatives that include the option of abortion, though other G8 governments might choose to do otherwise.

What is not clear is whether the minister did not know his own department's policy on one of the government's most important initiatives, or whether that policy changed overnight.

This is the fourth time in the last two weeks that the Conservative government has announced an initiative and then promptly abandoned it.

The Conservatives publicly mused in the Throne Speech about rewriting one line of the national anthem to make it gender-neutral, only to retreat in the face of outrage from conservative supporters.

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As recently as Monday, Steven Fletcher, Minister of State for Democratic Reform, argued in favour of 10-percenters - pamphlets mailed by MPs to constituents outside their riding. Others parties think they should be banned. It turns out, Mr. Harper thinks so too.

"The position of our government is clear," Mr. Harper told the House on Thursday. "If all of the parties wish to abolish this particular subsidy for mailings outside of the ridings, of course this party would be delighted to do that."

On Tuesday, Industry Minister Tony Clement apologized for letters that went out to community groups, many of them rural, warning them their subsidy for Internet access was about to be cut off.

The government, Mr. Clement insisted, merely intended to provide the funding from a different program.

And then came Thursday's reversal on funding for family planning.

It would be "almost criminal" to exclude family planning from maternal health initiatives, said Stan Bernstein, a policy adviser at the United Nations Population Fund, in an interview.

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Having one baby after another without sufficient intervals weakens the children and endangers the life of the mother.

"It is possible to imagine a maternal health program that does not include family planning," he said, "but this is a program that is handicapping itself."

Andrew Cooper, associate director for the Centre for International Governance and Innovation, said the Conservatives had probably reversed themselves because of complaints by aid agencies that had initially celebrated the Prime Minister's decision to ask the G8 to focus on maternal care.

"Harper's done a very good job of getting the NGOs [non-governmental organizations]onside," he said in an interview. Throwing a socially conservative caveat into the plans "would lose him that applause."

In the United States, Democrats and Republicans divide sharply over supporting or opposing family planning as a component of foreign aid. President Barack Obama would never endorse any aid package that did not promote contraception.

The Conservatives are starting to make a habit of throwing out initiatives designed either to broaden support among centrist voters or to placate the conservative base, only to abandon the plan after protests from the conservative base or centrist voters.

The previous prime minister was called Mr. Dithers because Paul Martin could never make up his mind. Stephen Harper, it seems, can't stop changing his.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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