National Newswatch

OTTAWA - The Harper government will not fund overseas projects that enable war rape victims and child brides to obtain abortions, International Development Minister Christian Paradis said Friday.

The Conservative position on the matter was unclear last week after it backed initiatives at the United Nations to tackle sexual violence and forced marriages.

But Paradis said government policy will follow the same logic as that outlined when Canada announced $3 billion for maternal and child health at the 2010 G8 summit in Muskoka. At the time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said none of the those dollars would go toward abortion services because there were enough other worthy initiatives to support.

"We've been clear in Muskoka, so you can think the same logic will apply here," Paradis said, after a meeting of the Canadian Network on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.

"There are plenty of measures that can be taken and Muskoka demonstrated that and we'll follow it in a consistent way with Muskoka."

That's a change from comments made by the president of the Canadian International Development Agency in 2010. While Canada has never directly funded abortions, Margaret Biggs told a committee that the agency would continue to fund aid groups who might provide referrals for abortion services.

CIDA was folded into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade earlier this year.

The Liberals and NDP denounced Paradis' comments. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair noted that rape has become a strategy of war, particularly in parts of Africa.

"Women who are victims of criminal sexual violence in those countries have a right to get care and help, including a safe abortion," Mulcair said.

"We find it simply unacceptable that Stephen Harper is sending out his ministers to stake out that type of ideological position instead of helping victims who need and deserve our help."

The Conservative government is making a mistake, said Liberal international development critic Kirsty Duncan.

"Minister Paradis is wrong," Duncan said. "The victims of sexual violence need the support of countries like Canada. Period."

Abortion continues to be a topic of debate in the House of Commons, coming up periodically as Conservative MPs bring forward private member's bills on the issue. An annual pro-life rally on Parliament Hill draws thousands of participants.

Harper, for his part, has repeatedly said he does not want to re-open the divisive debate.

Matthew Wojciechowski, spokesman for Campaign Life Coalition, applauded the government for standing by the position it took on the G8 funding. He said the aid focus should be on studying and preventing the causes of violence.

"On this whole situation dealing with war rape and child marriage, which are evil and horrible situations, I really believe the ... pro-abortion groups, especially at the UN, are totally hijacking this issue and making it about pushing forward the reproductive rights and their abortion agenda," Wojciechowski said.

An upcoming report to the UN Security Council from Secretary General Ban-Ki moon is expected to recommend access to abortion services for pregnancies resulting from rape during conflict, according to the Global Justice Center in New York.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird delivered a speech to the United Nations last week calling for more action on child and forced marriages. He also publicly backed a British initiative condemning sexual violence during conflict.

Ottawa pledged $5 million in the spring to help victims of such sexual violence. So far, nearly $1 million has gone to a family hotline in Afghanistan which refers victims to legal, medical and psychological help.

Paradis said further details on how Canada will address both issues will be announced in due course.

The British government explicitly said earlier this year that its development budget can be used to provide abortion care where allowed by national laws.

"In conflict situations, where denying an abortion in accordance with national law would threaten the mother’s life or cause unbearable suffering, international humanitarian law principles may justify performing an abortion," reads the statement by the U.K. Department for International Development.

The Canadian Press
Click here for more political news headlines