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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa Feb. 1, 2012.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS/CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

The opposition New Democrats say Prime Minister Stephen Harper is acquiescing to MPs on the Conservative backbenches who are opposed to legalized abortion and who have been trying to find ways to get the issue back on the government agenda.

NDP MPs point to a decision last fall to provide $6-million in funds over three years to the International Planned Parenthood Federation on the condition that the money goes to countries where abortion is illegal – a decision that angered opponents of abortion within the Conservative caucus who say the IPPF is a "nefarious" organization that promotes abortions abroad.

Since that announcement, Conservative MPs have been trying to find ways to get a discussion about abortion back before Parliament. And, despite Mr. Harper's insistence that he will not revisit the issue, he has not publicly challenged those efforts.

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Stephen Woodworth, a Conservative MP from Kitchener, Ont., has promised to explain next Monday how he will initiate a national conversation on Canada's 400-year-old definition of a human being – a conversation that could have profound impact on the legality of abortion.

Mr. Woodworth's initiative, and recent news stories about the funding to the IPPF, prompted the NDP to suggest that the government is deliberately allowing the matter of abortion to be dragged back onto the national stage.

"Can the Prime Minister explain his twisted reasoning with regard to maternal health in developing countries?" Françoise Boivin, an NDP MP from Quebec, asked during the daily Question Period at the House of Commons. Are Canadians to understand, asked Ms. Boivin, "that he is giving in to the pressure by backbenchers on the fanatic religious right who want to reopen the debate on abortion?"

Mr. Harper, who does not usually answer questions unless they are asked by leaders of the opposition parties, allowed International Development Minister Bev Oda to provide the response.

Ms. Oda said the government had been clear in its intention to improve the health of mothers and children around the world before listing off countries where Canadian aid has been effective.

Libby Davies, the veteran New Democrat who is her party's health critic, took another shot at the same question.

"The Prime Minister claims he's not reopening these debates and yet he has a trio of backbench Conservatives eagerly pushing a challenge to a woman's right to choose and he's playing hide and seek with funding for international maternal health organizations," Ms. Davies said. "So, does the Prime Minister still claim his government is not reopening the debate on abortion? Or is he finally giving way to his fringe backbenchers?"

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This time Ms. Oda provided a more direct answer. "Our government has been very clear," she said. "We are not opening up the discussion on abortion but we are improving the health and reducing the mortality of women and children in developing countries."

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