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New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 25, 2015.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

The NDP would reverse a controversial Conservative policy that prohibits the use of Canadian foreign aid to fund safe abortions in low-income countries, Thomas Mulcair says.

Mr. Mulcair made the comments in a speech to non-governmental organizations and development experts during a conference in Gatineau, Que., on Tuesday. The NDP leader also said the party would increase overall funding for development assistance and ensure that poverty alleviation remains at the centre of Canadian aid efforts.

The conference, hosted by the Canadian Association of International Development Professionals and the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, invited political parties to discuss their positions on foreign aid ahead of the next federal election.

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"A New Democrat government will increase funding for women's organizations, particularly women's rights organizations," Mr. Mulcair said. "Family planning, reproductive and sexual health, including access to abortion services, must be included in Canada's approach to maternal and child health."

The Liberals did not outline a specific policy agenda, but international co-operation critic Kirsty Duncan told the conference that her party is opposed to the Conservative government's ban on funding abortion. "The Liberals absolutely support the full spectrum of reproductive health, including abortion where it is legal," she said.

Ms. Duncan added that she would like to see a greater focus on reproductive health services, including contraception, in Canada's maternal and child health-care efforts and expressed concern about current levels of funding for foreign aid.

The Conservative government has received international praise for its leadership on improving maternal and child health in poor countries. But it has also faced persistent criticism for the proportion of its spending that is dedicated to family planning and for barring foreign aid from being used to provide safe abortions.

Lois Brown, parliamentary secretary for international co-operation, said in an interview on Tuesday that the government provides funding for family planning but its stance on abortions in other countrIes remains the same.

"We are not going to export controversy," she said, when asked if the government's policy had changed. "We are going to export Canadian expertise. The issue of abortion is extremely divisive right here in Canada, so going overseas where, in many of the countries, it's illegal, we are going to take the expertise that we have and what we are doing right now is saving the lives of millions of moms and babies."

An estimated 13 per cent of all maternal deaths are caused by unsafe abortions, according to the World Health Organization.

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Mr. Mulcair also said the NDP would set a multiyear timetable for increasing official development assistance to eventually reach a global target of 0.7 per cent of GDP.

Canada provided 0.24 per cent of its GDP to official international development assistance in 2014, its lowest level since 2003, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Asked about a timeline for reaching the 0.7 per cent target, Mr. Mulcair said the increase could not be done overnight but would be a priority for the NDP.

Ms. Brown said the government is focused on maximizing the results of Canada's foreign aid. She added that she would not speculate on what the Conservative platform would say about future aid budgets.

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