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Tory anti-contraception policy sparks uproar from opposition

NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks during a press conference on Parliament Hill on Tuesday, March 2, 2010.

Pawel Dwulit/Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press

Furious opposition critics are accusing the Conservative government of infecting Canadian foreign policy with right-wing religious conservatism.

They are infuriated by the Harper government's decision to not fund contraception as part of its initiative to improve Third World maternal care.

Aid agencies "have lived this nightmare before, with George Bush, where there is no access to condoms, no access to contraception," said Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett outside the House of Commons Wednesday.

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"What happens if you don't provide contraception, there will be ... many more women in [the]position that you do not save lives by not preventing the pregnancies in the first place."

Is Canada's signature initiative at the G8 going to be the 'no condoms for Africa' strategy? Jack Layton, NDP Leader

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made maternal health a signature issue at the coming G8 summit, asking fellow members to work at improving the health of Third World women after they have children.

But Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon confirmed this week that there would be no funding to promote contraception, on the grounds that the extra money is intended "to save lives."

Experts say there is overwhelming evidence that having fewer children improves maternal health and raises living standards. But the American administration of George W. Bush prohibited funding for family-planning programs overseas. Reversing the order was one of U.S. President Barack Obama's first acts.

"Is Canada's signature initiative at the G8 going to be the 'no condoms for Africa' strategy?" Jack Layton asked Wednesday in the House of Commons.

In answering critics, Bev Oda, Minister of International Co-operation, refused to discuss the question of contraception.

"When we know what we can do by providing clean water, vaccinations, better nutrition, as well as the most effective ... training of health-care workers and improving access for those women, that is what we are going to do," she told the House.

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A government official speaking on background insisted the opposition was distorting the government's position. Canada already funded family-planning measures, including contraception, the official said.

The new funding would be for other programs, where extra effort was needed. The minister, however, was not available to offer that explanation.

For now, an initiative aimed at helping women abroad is enraging some women at home, who believe religious conservatism should be confined to Tea Parties and Fox News, and never become a part of Canada's policy on international aid.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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