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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's Conservative government, seeking to take the abortion debate off the table as it heads toward an election campaign, possibly as early as September 5, said on Monday it would strengthen penalties for violent attacks on pregnant women.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the bill he would introduce would make pregnancy an aggravating factor when a woman is assaulted but do so in a way that leaves no room for the introduction of fetal rights.
This would not go as far as a private-member's bill introduced earlier by a Conservative backbencher, which would have made it a separate crime to cause the death of an unborn child when a woman is attacked.
Nicholson said some had interpreted this as an expansion of rights of the unborn and an indirect way to reintroduce abortion restrictions. Canada has no laws restricting the procedure.
"Let me be clear. Our government will not reopen the debate on abortion," Nicholson told reporters. "The bill will not be open to misinterpretation."
The dissolution of Parliament and an early election campaign would preclude introduction of the legislation, but the Conservative government would be able to point to its bill and say it has no plans on abortion.
"This is an example of us clarifying what the government's intent is with regards to its agenda and what the government's agenda is not," Kory Teneycke, spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told reporters.
"That clarity, I think, is helpful for Canadians, especially as we go into a period where they might be forced to make a choice."
In past campaigns, the other parties have asserted that the Conservatives would make abortion illegal and Harper clearly wanted to head this off before any campaign is launched.
A senior Conservative source said Harper was seriously considering having Parliament dissolved on September 5 and calling a general election for October 14.
Harper has complained about what he calls a dysfunctional Parliament and the need for a new mandate, but this is the most specific anybody had been about an election call.
The last national vote was in January 2006, leaving the Conservatives with a minority of seats in the House of Commons and relying on the support of at least one opposition party to pass legislation and remain in power.
If an election were held now, opinion polls point to another minority government, with neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals enjoying a clear lead.
Harper says he wants to meet with the leaders of the three opposition parties to see if they are willing to let the government get on with its mandate.
No meeting has been scheduled with Liberal leader Stephane Dion, and Harper is heading to the Arctic on Tuesday for a three-day trip, making an election call this week unlikely.
Talks could be held next week -- perhaps even over the phone -- and, if there is no meeting of minds, then he could make the election call on Friday, September 5. "However, nothing is certain yet," the Conservative source said.
One advantage of triggering an election on September 5 would be that it would cancel four by-elections scheduled for later in the month. All four seats had been held by opposition parties, and Harper may want to deny them a chance to gain momentum.
It would also mean the vote would be called before the scheduled September 15 return of Parliament from a summer recess.
For most of his mandate, Harper has said he hopes to govern until the fixed election date of October 19, 2009, but he has lately expressed growing frustration with what he calls Liberal obstruction.
The Conservative government has lasted longer than most Canadian minorities, which are usually lucky to run 18 months.
Reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Rob Wilson