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As the world celebrated International Women's Day on Wednesday, federal Conservatives in Canada criticized an international Liberal government plan to invest $650 million in sexual and reproductive health projects.
Speaking to media on Parliament Hill, interim party leader Rona Ambrose expressed concern that the Trudeau government's new investment could wind up funding abortions in countries where the practice is illegal, and said funding international abortion services is "divisive."
"We’ve always taken the position that this is very divisive — not just divisive — but illegal in a lot of the countries that we give aid to," she explained. "Our position was always, let’s stick to things that we know will bring people together and everyone can support, which was the maternal and child health initiative."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced early on Wednesday that to mark gender equality and the right to choose on International Women's Day, his government will pour $650 million into sexual education and reproductive health services around the world, including family planning, contraceptives, and abortion services in countries where it is legal. The funding, to be rolled out over a three-year period, is double the amount of Canada's current investment in reproductive health.
Tories call for less "divisive" health spending
Shortly after the announcement however, Ambrose and other Tory MPs, including Manitoba's Candice Bergen and Saskatchewan's Brad Trost, were unconvinced that the investment was a smart move. They echoed sentiments expressed by former prime minister Stephen Harper, who banned funding for international abortion services after launching his flagship maternal, newborn and child health initiative in 2010. At that time, Harper's government also said that funding international abortion services was "divisive."
Their criticism comes just as the international community is scrambling to fill a global sexual health funding gap left by the White House south of the border. Last month, President Donald Trump reinstated a policy requiring foreign NGOs who receive U.S. global family planning funds to certify that they don't perform abortions or provide abortion guidance as a method of family planning.
Unless it receives funding to offer such services, Marie Stopes International, an NGO that provides safe abortion services in 37 countries around the world, estimated there will be 2.1 million unsafe abortions and 21,700 maternal deaths during Trump's first term that could have been prevented. Canada and the Netherlands are among the countries that offered to fill such funding gaps, but on Wednesday, the Tories cautioned against supporting abortion overseas.
"When you do polling in these countries to actually ask culturally, what they want, this is not what they want," said Trost, a candidate in the race to replace Harper as leader of the party. "So the Liberals are taking Canadian taxpayers’ money, they’re shipping it overseas to back one of their favourite ideological projects."
Trost said on International Women's Day, the federal government should focus on less "polarizing" victories, like the winning the right to vote and the economic contributions that women make in Canada every day. A vocal pro-life advocate, Trost was the only Tory MP speaking with media who openly admitted the funding was "wrong."
Ambrose and Bergen were more cautious.
Spend in Canada first: Bergen
Bergen called for the Trudeau government to spend its investment dollars in Canada, arguing that the positive impact of foreign aid is difficult to quantify. The previous government's maternal and child health program was a "very focused" initiative, she said, and any investments that support women and children overseas should be "measurable and targeted."
"We need support here at home and we’re seeing the Trudeau government spending a lot of money abroad, not just on these types of initiatives," Bergen told reporters during a scrum on Wednesday. "I don’t know that we’re seeing that in these announcements. We’ll have to see the results, but I’m a believer in being careful with our foreign aid."
Ambrose said the government should focus on funding reproductive health programs that are supported by both aid agencies and the countries where Canada directs its investment dollars.
The prime minister's office could not immediately be reached to respond to Conservative criticism of Trudeau's plan, but on Wednesday, Trudeau issued the following statement:
“While we have taken significant steps toward gender equality, we know that much more work needs to be done. Women around the world continue to receive lower pay and fewer promotions. They are denied legal control over their bodies and reproductive health. They face much higher rates of harassment and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse...
“That is why we will continue to place gender equality and rights, and the empowerment of women and girls, at the heart of our international development work."
with files from The Canadian Press
Editor's Note: This story was corrected at 9:35 p.m. on Wed. March 8, 2017. It previously stated MP Brad Trost was pro-choice. The correct statement is pro-life. National Observer regrets this error.