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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens to Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon read the closing statement at the G8 Foreign Ministers meeting in Gatineau, Que., on March 30, 2010.


Hillary Clinton has taken issue with Canada's signature G8 initiative on maternal mortality, arguing that any effort to improve the health of mothers in poor countries must include access to abortion.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is seeking to make maternal health the centrepiece of the G8 summit he is hosting in Ontario in June, was initially reluctant to include contraception as part of the agenda, and he has insisted the plan would leave out abortion.

But the U.S. Secretary of State was blunt in her disagreement with this approach yesterday.

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"You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health," Ms. Clinton said at a news conference after a meeting of G8 foreign ministers in Gatineau, Que. "And reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortion.

It was the third time in a two-day visit to Canada that Ms. Clinton gave her Canadian hosts a headache.

Her willingness to ruffle feathers here - on Monday, she criticized Canada's convening of a meeting on the Arctic and publicly asked for Ottawa to keep troops in Afghanistan past a 2011 deadline - is hinting at underlying tensions between Washington and Ottawa that have surprised some diplomatic observers.

"It's curious and curiouser," said Colin Robertson, a former senior diplomat at Canada's embassy in Washington, now a senior fellow with the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute.

Ms. Clinton, he noted, is a well-briefed veteran politician and campaigner who knows how to avoid stepping into controversy if she wants to.

A leaked copy of her remarks to a meeting of Arctic Ocean nations criticized Canada for holding a meeting of five countries, while leaving out three members of the Arctic Council and not being responsive to aboriginal concerns. And in a CTV interview, Ms. Clinton emphatically asked for Canadian troops to stay in Afghanistan past 2011 - even though Mr. Harper's government has repeatedly said they will not.

"She could have dodged all of them," Mr. Robertson said. "This is all by design."

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Mr. Harper's spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, insisted there are no waves in the close Canada-U.S. relationship.

And a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, Gordon Giffin, said the differences are not signs of a major issue dividing Washington and Ottawa. "A bigger indication of a problem would be if [Ms. Clinton]hadn't come," he said.

Ms. Clinton has worked on women's rights throughout her career and considers maternal health a signature issue of her own, so she may have felt strongly about making her view known.

While she stipulated that she could not speak for Canada, she certainly did not tame her views to save Mr. Harper's government embarrassment.

"I've also been very involved in promoting family planning and contraception as a way to prevent abortion. If you're concerned about abortion, then women should have access to family planning," Ms. Clinton said. "And finally, I do not think governments should be involved in making these decisions."

Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon was silent as Ms. Clinton replied to a reporter's question. Both his spokesman and a spokesman for International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda declined to comment.

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Two weeks ago, Mr. Cannon created controversy at home and abroad by saying birth control would not be included in the maternal health initiative. Mr. Harper reversed course two days later, saying contraception was not ruled out, but abortion would not be part of the package.

There are signals that the G8 position sides with Ms. Clinton, rather than Mr. Harper.

"Our position is very much as stated by Secretary Clinton," said British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

He was slightly more diplomatic, referring to "comprehensive" family-planning options rather than abortion, but he was clear Britain does not want to see access to legal abortion excluded.

The meeting of G8 foreign ministers, spread over Monday and Tuesday, ended up setting the Harper government on the defensive, as talks on key issues, including Afghanistan and Iran's nuclear program, produced incremental advances.

The final statement called for the international community to take strong steps on Iran's nuclear program, but did not mention the word "sanctions."

Although Mr. Harper and Mr. Cannon have signalled they would like to see the G8 agree on co-ordinated steps on sanctions, most of the foreign ministers said that issue belongs with the UN Security Council, where a reluctant China is said to be an impediment to fresh sanctions.

Mr. Miliband insisted there was universal resolve in the G8 for a strategy of offering talks but also applying pressure on Iran, and the group did not back away from calling for immediate sanctions to allow time to lobby a reluctant China.

"I was in China, and they don't want to be isolated on this," Mr. Miliband told The Globe. "They say very clearly they share the goal of preventing Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and I don't believe they want to be isolated on this."

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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