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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Melinda Gates visited Davisville Public School in Toronto on Thursday, May 29, 2014, as part of a summit on maternal health.Fred Lum

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says family planning is an essential part of Canada's efforts to improve maternal and child health, but abortion remains too divisive to be included in that package.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Thursday, Mr. Harper said Canada is striving to be a consensus builder on the issue and suggested that funding abortion could make it more challenging to rally others to the cause. He made the comments as he pledged another $3.5-billion over five years to improve the health of mothers and children and vowed to keep the cause on the global agenda after 2015.

During a summit on maternal and child health in Toronto this week, some non-governmental organizations and opposition MPs had called on the government to place greater emphasis on family planning, which they said can have a significant impact on women's health at a relatively low cost. The government said on Thursday that the new funding would focus on combatting diseases, improving nutrition and improving health systems but did not specifically mention family planning.

Mr. Harper spoke with The Globe in a Toronto classroom alongside Melinda Gates, who co-chairs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ms. Gates called reproductive health an important part of the "continuum" around maternal, newborn and child health because women who have options about how to space their pregnancies are healthier and more likely to have healthier babies. The Gates foundation, like Canada, does not provide funding for abortion services, but Ms. Gates has made family planning a major focus in her advocacy efforts.

Asked about the role of reproductive health, Mr. Harper said there is a "myth" that Canada doesn't fund any family planning or reproductive health services in developing countries. "That's not true. We do. We, specifically as a consequence of a vote in Parliament, do not fund abortion services but we fund other forms," he said, "And yes, I do happen to believe that's an essential part of the [maternal and child health] continuum."

On Thursday, the International Planned Parenthood Federation called on Mr. Harper to ensure family planning receives adequate funding as part of the government's broader package on maternal and child health. The organization said it would send Mr. Harper a letter, penned by civil society organizations in six of the countries that receive maternal and child health assistance from Canada, asking for family planning to play a bigger role in the initiative.

Mr. Harper has personally taken up the cause to boost global efforts to reduce the number mothers and children who die each year and remains involved in the matter four years after making it Canada's top development priority during the 2010 G8 summit in Muskoka. And Ms. Gates said Canada's leadership is part of the reason maternal and child health is on the global agenda today.

But sensitivities around the initiative were on display during the three-day summit this week, when reporters were kept out of a series of panel discussions involving health experts and NGOs. Reporters were also barred from viewing an address by Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, who spoke after one of the panel events on Thursday.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office said the sessions were held privately to allow for more candid discussions on maternal and child health, including on issues that will help inform the government's policy positions, but did not respond to a question about the decision to keep media out of Ms. Chan's address.

Critics of the government's approach on maternal and child health have called on Canada to reverse a decision not to fund abortion services in developing countries, pointing to World Health Organization estimates that unsafe abortions cause about 8 per cent of maternal deaths.

Mr. Harper told The Globe that Canada does not advance access to abortion services in developing countries, citing a vote in the House of Commons several years ago in which a majority of MPs voted against including abortion in Canada's maternal and child health agenda.

"What we have been trying to do since 2010 is build broad public and international consensus for saving the lives of mothers and babies," Mr. Harper said when asked whether Canada might change its stand. "You cannot do that if you introduce that other issue. The fact of the matter is it's not only divisive in our country and in other donor countries, it's extremely divisive in recipient countries where it's often illegal."

Mr. Harper also urged the international community to keep maternal and child health on the global development agenda after the Millennium Development Goals expire next year. He also cautioned against adding too many new goals to the list, saying that could make it more difficult to achieve any of them.

"We have eight [Millennium Development Goals] now, and I'm not saying they're necessarily the best eight, or we can only have eight," Mr. Harper said in an interview.

"But I just know from all my experience in government, that the more priorities you have the less any of your priorities actually matter. So we're focusing on two in Canada. But I'd urge the world just not to let the list get too long, or everything will just become ineffective."

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