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A two-day meeting of G8 development ministers got underway in Halifax on Tuesday with a debate on abortion looming over a discussion on improving maternal and child health in poor countries.

Canada announced on Monday it won't support funding for abortions in the developing world as part of a family planning initiative it is pushing as a key agenda item for a meeting of G8 leaders in June in Huntsville, Ont.

International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda made no mention of Canada's position on abortion in her opening statement at Pier 21 on the Halifax waterfront.

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In her five-minute opening address, she told her counterparts from the largest industrial countries that collectively they can make a difference on health issues for mothers, newborns and children under the age of five.

"We know we have the means and the tools to make a difference for millions of mothers, newborns, and young children in developing countries," she said, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia where progress is lagging.

"I believe that with our collective efforts and diligence the G8 can assure that our development efforts will make a sustainable difference in the lives of so many."

On Monday, Ms. Oda said Canada's contribution internationally could involve family planning and the use of contraceptive methods, but funding for abortions is not something the federal government will support.

She said Canada's position isn't at odds with other G8 members, including the United States and the United Kingdom.

Until Monday, the Conservative government had refused to say if abortion would be covered under the G8 plan.

Some government critics say Ms. Oda's declaration on abortion could threaten an attempt to find a consensus on the best approach to maternal and child health among G8 development ministers.

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But Ms. Oda swept aside those concerns, saying the Canadian government still agrees with the internationally accepted definition of family planning as sanctioned by the International Health Organization, the United Nations and G8 development agencies.

As well, Ms. Oda said, she recently met with other development ministers in Washington and New York, where she was told there was no disagreement with Canada's position.

"They all support Canada's initiative," she said on Monday. "There is no division on what it includes."

Ontario Liberal MP Bob Rae said the Tories' position is ridiculous.

"They have this great sort of double talk where they say, 'We don't want to reopen the abortion debate.' Well, they just did," he said outside the Commons on Monday.

He said the federal government is trying to impose its moral agenda on other countries.

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"Canada is now taking an ideological position and, frankly, I think they've raised something which could well have been avoided in the effort to create a stronger international consensus."

At the opening of the meeting in Halifax, Ms. Oda said as host of this year's G8 meeting Canada is in a position to help women and children in developing countries by improving their health and reducing preventable diseases.

"Canada recognizes that we are in a position, along with other G8 countries, to take action to help millions who today are still facing an uncertain future, continued hunger, early deaths and little or no access to the basic necessities of life, and particularly women," she said.

World Vision Canada says there are 8.8 million child deaths a year from preventable conditions like diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia.

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