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Canada 'not closing doors' on contraception, PM declares

Stephen Harper's office is not calling it a flip-flop but today in Question Period the Prime Minister clearly opened the door to allowing contraception to be part of his G8 initiative on maternal health.

Yesterday, it appeared to be excluded from his signature plan to help mothers and children in developing countries.

Mr. Harper also offered what seemed to be a proviso - that he does not want "a debate here or elsewhere on abortion."

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Yesterday, the Prime Minister remained in his seat when NDP Leader Jack Layton asked how contraception could not be included in a program aimed at reducing maternal mortality, calling it a "no-condoms-for-Africa strategy."

Mr. Harper would not answer questions, however, as to whether it was his government's position that contraception does not save lives. His Foreign Affairs Minister, Lawrence Cannon, had told a Commons committee that the maternal health initiative was about saving lives and birth control did not fit the bill.

"It does not deal in any way, shape or form with family planning," Mr. Cannon said about the initiative when he met with the committee. "Indeed, the purpose of this is to be able to save lives."

Today, the story has changed:

"The government's position is clear," the Prime Minister said. "I think the minister responded - the government is seeking to get the G8 countries to act to save lives, mothers and children, throughout the world.

"We are not closing doors against any options including contraception. But we do not want a debate here or elsewhere on abortion."

International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said the same thing in Question Period today when Liberal MP Bob Rae raised the issue. Yesterday she did not indicate contraception was an option when she questioned vigorously about it.

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Instead, she spoke about "providing clean water, vaccinations, better nutrition" and training health care workers as the way the government was proceeding. The word "contraception" did not pass her lips.

But the Prime Minister's official spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, says the government's position has not changed. "We've always said we'd look at all options," he said. "We've also always said we're not opening the door to the abortion debate."

However, Liberal MP Keith Martin, who is also a medical doctor and has worked extensively in Africa, is confused about the Prime Minister's comments today.

"This is difficult to know," said Dr. Martin. "Perhaps he is trying to navigate a position that does not disturb his political base but can show that he will address this challenge from a scientific basis."

Dr. Martin says that not dealing with contraception as part of such an initiative is "destructive" when confronting the AIDS pandemic.

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