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Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced funding for maternal, newborn and child health in developing countries during a press event on May 29 2014. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has positioned Canada as a world leader in improving the health of mothers and children in developing countries. He pledged another $3.5-billion over five years at a summit in Toronto, which will go toward improving access to vaccines, better nutrition and fighting disease.

But there is one component of maternal health that Mr. Harper does not want to discuss at all: abortion. Unsafe abortion is one of the most easily preventable causes of maternal death. According to the World Health Organization, 18.5 million women undergo unsafe abortions in developing countries every year; 47,000 women die from the complications. Deaths due to unsafe abortion account for nearly 13 per cent of all maternal deaths. Given these grim numbers, it makes no sense to discuss saving the lives of women and girls without talking about access to abortion.

Mr. Harper says abortion is "too divisive" to include in Canada's maternal and child health agenda. As Hillary Clinton rightly noted in 2010, "You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health, and that includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortions."

Shortly after he took office, President Barack Obama rescinded the "global gag rule," which had removed funding from any family-planning organization overseas that had anything to do with abortion. And many European countries recognize the centrality of access to abortion, in decreasing mortality rates for women who have too many children too close together.

In Canada, women have access to safe abortion. It is hypocritical for the government to deny the same kind of access to women in developing countries where abortion is legal, but underfunded. Any meaningful definition of family planning includes access to safe and legal abortion. Ottawa's commitment to child and maternal health should do so as well.