International aid organizations are raising fears that a landmark effort to reduce childbirth and infant deaths in poor countries could get bogged down by abortion politics in Canada.
Canada's announcement on Monday that it will refuse to fund abortions under a G8 maternal health initiative sparked a political storm in Ottawa, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper accusing the opposition of launching a "culture war" on the divisive abortion issue.
International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda, meanwhile, sought to minimize the impact, insisting that Canada's refusal to fund abortions applies only to the G8 package and won't change other aid projects. But she declined to say if lapsed funding for family planning organizations that provide abortion services will be renewed.
And although international family planning organizations criticized Canada's position, several major aid agencies banded together to urge Canadians to move past it. They fear political squabbles in the G8's host country could undermine larger strategies to drastically reduce infant and childbirth deaths.
"I'm worried that this important global initiative is going to get derailed by domestic Canadian politics," said David Morley, the president of Save the Children Canada. "It's driving me crazy that it's turning into this debate."
Aid organizations have argued that there are straightforward ways to slash the number of maternal and young-child deaths in poor countries. Nutritional supplements like iron could cut the 500,000 pregnancy-related deaths each year by 80,000, experts say; vaccines for two illnesses and bed nets for malaria would cut the nine million deaths of children under the age of 5 by a third.
Deaths from unsafe abortions account for 13 per cent of maternal deaths in poor countries, according to the World Health Organization, but some of that problem would be addressed by contraception initiatives, Mr. Morley said. "The abortion issue, in the big picture, is a small part."
Indeed, Ms. Oda, meeting her counterparts from G8 nations in Halifax, said Canada is listening to experts who say family planning initiatives are important to improving maternal health, and insisted that there is no division among countries over the role of abortion. USAID administrator Rajiv Shah told reporters the United States and Canada are not at odds - although he reaffirmed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's position that access to safe abortions should be part of a maternal health plan.
Within Canada, the issue has become divisive. Opposition politicians accused the Conservatives of imposing their morality on the G8 plan, and Liberal MP Bob Rae asked if Canada will now refuse to support abortions for teenagers raped by combatants in the Congo. When Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff accused the Conservatives of breaking with past Canadian policy, Mr. Harper fired back.
"He may think a culture war is a good idea, but the fact of the matter is that Canadians want to see their foreign aid money used for things that will help save the lives of women and children in ways that unite the Canadian people rather than divide them," Mr. Harper said.
In Halifax, Ms. Oda insisted that the policy of refusing to fund abortions applies only to the G8 initiative, that it doesn't change Canada's policies in other areas. But what muddied the waters was her assertion that Canada has never funded abortion procedures - even though until last December, the country provided $6-million a year in unrestricted funding to International Planned Parenthood Federation, which provides abortion services in addition to contraceptives.
"Canada has never funded a procedure that included abortion. We are not changing our policy as far as CIDA's work from historical past practices," she said. "The clarification yesterday was that within Canada's G8 initiative, or package of how it best will address and help progress in improving maternal health, we will not be funding abortion or the promotion of abortion."
When asked if that meant that family planning organizations like IPPF, which provide some abortion services, will see their funding renewed, Ms. Oda said only that Canada will honour its "current commitments."
A spokesman for the IPPF in London, Paul Bell, said that in the past Canada never placed restrictions on how its grant of $18-million over three years could be used. That funding ran out in December and the organization has not heard if it will be renewed. He said it's not clear what Ms. Oda's statements this week will mean to them.