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Harper must make abortion part of health pledge, Ignatieff says

Surrounded by MPs, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks with the parliamentary press on Tuesday, February 2, 2010.

Adrian Wyld

If Stephen Harper wants to champion the health of the world's poor mothers, he'll have to go to bat for abortion, too, Michael Ignatieff says.

The Prime Minister has signalled that he plans to make maternal health in the developing world Canada's cause when he is host of the G8 summit in June.

Mr. Ignatieff said any efforts to reduce high death rates among mothers will have to include broader access to contraception. He also raised a fear that the Conservatives, like their counterparts in the United States, would shy away from funding family-planning agencies that support abortion rights.

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"If we're going to improve maternal health and child health around the world, women need access to the full gamut of reproductive health services," the Liberal leader told reporters Tuesday.

Mr. Harper has not indicated if he would oppose aid for pro-choice groups.

Mr. Ignatieff noted that in the United States, the administration of president George W. Bush prevented aid money from going to organizations that supported abortion.

"We don't want us to go that way," Mr. Ignatieff said. "We want to make sure that women have access to all the contraceptive methods available to control their fertility. Because we don't want to have women dying because of botched procedures.

"We don't want to have women dying in misery. We want women to be able to care for themselves better and then look out for their kids better. These are simple objectives. Let's keep the ideology out of this and move forward."

Mr. Harper has called for maternal health to top the agenda of the G8 group of wealthy nations, noting that 500,000 women die in pregnancy or childbirth each year. About 99 per cent of those deaths are in developing countries.

International health and development agencies consistently link contraception and the health of mothers in the developing world, because many die from complications related to becoming pregnant too young, too often, or in quick succession -- or from complications after illegal abortions.

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An Amnesty International study on maternal deaths in Burkina Faso, for example, cited inadequate funding for family planning and legal restrictions on abortions as a serious contributor the problem. It cited 2002 UN statistics that show five per cent of women admitted to maternity wards in the African country has serious complications from illegal abortions.

But Mr. Ignatieff's political blast sparked a vitriolic response from Mr. Harper's office.

"Saving lives of mothers and children should not be a political football," said Mr. Harper's press secretary, Dimitri Soudas. "This has nothing to do with abortion. This has nothing to do with gay marriage. This had nothing to do with capital punishment."

He called Mr. Ignatieff's remarks "sad."

"Far too many lives have already been lost for want of relatively simple health-care necessities such as clean water, inoculation, better nutrition, or well-trained health care workers," Mr. Soudas said.

Mr. Soudas refused to say specifically whether Mr. Harper views access to contraception and abortion as important in improving maternal health.

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Mr. Ignatieff's statement surprised pro-life members of caucus. One, Mississauga MP Paul Szabo, said he never heard abortion rights discussed Tuesday in caucus meetings about maternal health - and said it's "too blunt" to consider Mr. Ignatieff's statement as the position of the Liberal caucus.

Pro-life Liberal MPs have split with other members of the caucus on abortion issues in Canada. "Respect for life doesn't know boundaries," Mr. Szabo told the Globe Tuesday night.

Katherine McDonald, executive director of Action Canada for Population and Development, said that by giving women control over when they become mothers, contraception can help cut the number of pregnancy-related deaths by 70 per cent.

"It's the key part. Women who have children too early or too frequently are at high risks of complications from pregnancy. Timing of births is really important," she said. "All of these people need contraception in order to avoid unintended pregnancy."

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Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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