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In Europe, all quiet on the abortion front

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Stephen Harper leave the Elysee Palace in Paris on Friday, June 4.

LIONEL BONAVENTURE/Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen Harper may have failed to persuade his British and French counterparts to abandon their push for a global bank levy, but he did get something out of his quick dash over to Europe.

Silence on the issue of abortion.

In two days of meetings, in two separate capitals with world leaders, Mr. Harper managed to secure the public endorsement of British Prime Minister David Cameron and French Prime Minister François Fillon for his controversial G8 maternal health initiative, which does not include funds for safe access to abortion.

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Unprompted (but certainly pointed out privately to reporters by a Harper aide) both leaders clearly endorsed Mr. Harper's focus on his government's plan to improve the health of women and children in the developing world.

"We fully support the proposals made by the Canadian government," said Mr. Fillon during a press conference after their meeting in Paris on Friday.

On Thursday, in the back garden of 10 Downing St., Mr. Cameron said, "I very much back and share what Stephen has talked about in terms of an initiative on maternal and child health in the developing world.

"It is a scandal, a shame and a tragedy that so many mothers die in childbirth, and so many children don't reach their fifth birthday."

The Conservative Prime Minister's stand is certainly a different take than that of Labour foreign secretary David Millaband, who supported U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's assertions that abortion is a necessary component to any maternal-health program.

Mr. Cameron was silent on the abortion issue on Thursday.

Mr. Harper and his government would not include access to safe abortion as part of the initiative. And that has proven contentious in Canada as the opposition says that the procedure is an important component to saving the lives of women in developing countries.

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They have accused the government of letting right-wing ideology seep into decisions around this initiative.

But a senior Harper official suggested that this just goes to show the opposition is wrong; the abortion brouhaha is one that they unfortunately "engineered."

Mr. Harper, said the official, is leaving Europe very pleased with his meetings, which were in part a courtesy call to the two leaders leading up to the G8 and G20 summits. He wanted to find out what was on their minds - and he did.

Mr. Harper has already spoken to U.S. President Barack Obama several times; he has met with other European leaders, including Germany's Angela Merkel and the Croatian Prime Minister and President.

Still, Mr. Harper's meetings this week in London and Paris mainly focused on his lobby against the global bank tax, and he leaves failing to have made much progress on that front.

Mr. Cameron made it clear on Thursday that he plans to bring up the issue at the G20 summit later this month in Toronto; the French also support such a measure.

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But there is much opposition to the tax from China, Australia, Brazil and India led by Canada. So it's not clear what progress can be made on the issue at the actual leaders summit.

However, both the French Prime Minister and Mr. Harper spoke Friday about agreeing that taxpayers should no longer bail out banks.

So after two days, two capital cities and two hours of separate meetings with two world leaders, including a military band and red-carpet reception on his arrival in Paris on Thursday, the Prime Minister leaves with not a lot to show for it.

NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar criticized him for embarking on a "Save the Banks tour" instead of focusing on the "real challenges of poverty eradication and climate adaptation."

"Most people want to see the Prime Minister advancing those in need - that's certainly not the banks," Mr. Dewar said.

But Mr. Harper did get one thing in the end - a new French consulate in his hometown of Calgary to go with the other French consulates in Moncton, Quebec, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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