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International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda speaks to reporters at Pier 21 in Halifax on April 26, 2010 ahead of a G8 ministers' meeting on maternal health.

Andrew Vaughn/The Canadian Press

Canada is refusing to fund abortion services as part of a G8 initiative to improve the health of mothers in poor countries.

Just as G8 officials arrived in Halifax for talks on the maternal-health initiative on Monday, the Conservative government said that other Group of Eight nations can finance projects that include abortion services if they choose - but Canada won't.

However, the political stumbles and controversy over abortion in Canada, the host of this June's G8 summit, raised concerns that the position could lead to clashes with other countries and slow progress on the initiative, which is aimed at reducing childbirth and infant deaths through vaccinations, better nutrition, clean water and basic medical care.

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The Harper government's flip-flops on whether it would provide aid to programs that include contraception, and its stand against abortion, have already caused tension.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary David Milliband said any maternal-health initiative must include family planning and access to safe abortions.

On Monday, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda tried to smooth away those conflicts. The G8 talks in Halifax this week will include consideration of family-planning projects, but Canada won't fund abortions, she said, adding that other G8 countries can make that part of their contribution if they want.

"Within the scope of this G8 initiative, countries will be able to identify their own priorities," Ms. Oda told reporters in Halifax before meeting counterparts from other G8 countries for two days of talks.

"Canada's contribution to maternal and child health may involve various interventions, including family planning, which includes the use of contraceptive methods. The details remain to be determined, however, Canada's contribution will not include funding for abortion."

Her parliamentary secretary, Jim Abbott, echoed the statement in the House of Commons.

NDP Leader Jack Layton charged that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government is now offside with the G8 consensus on the initiative, which was Canada's own idea. Liberal MP Bob Rae asked whether it meant Canada will cut off aid to governments of poor countries with family-planning programs that include abortion.

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"Does that mean we're going to boycott governments that have a freedom of choice policy in their country?" he asked.

The question of whether family planning would be part of the G8 maternal-health initiative is deemed important by most experts because many of the estimated 500,000 childbirth deaths in developing countries each year are caused by complications from women becoming pregnant too young and too often in quick succession.

The inclusion of safe abortion services, where they are legal, is also promoted by many experts, because so many deaths are caused by complications from botched abortions.

"There isn't a division on what it includes or not includes. Canada's initiative, that [G8 countries]support, is saving the lives of mothers and children under the age of 5, and it does not mean supporting abortions," Ms. Oda said.

She argued that the U.S. development agency USAID also does not fund abortions - but experts noted that it finances family-planning organizations and government programs that include abortion.

Funding family planning but not abortions will be impractical in the real world, said Katherine McDonald, executive director of Action Canada for Population and Development. To cut off abortion funding, Canada must cut off all funding for any family-planning program that provides abortions.

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"If Canada follows that model, it's a replica of the Bush-era global gag law. If they don't, how will we know that none of the money is used for abortion?" she said.

With a report from Bill Curry in Ottawa

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