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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada signaled a split with allies on Monday, ahead of a G8 aid ministers' meeting, by saying it would not help groups that fund abortions as part of a push to boost maternal health in the world's poorest nations.
Critics said the minority Conservative government was taking a retrograde step that would harm women.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in January he would use Canada's presidency of the Group of Eight rich industrialized nations to push for improvements to maternal and child health.
"Canada's contribution to maternal and child health may include family planning. However, Canada's contribution will not include funding abortion," said Jim Abbott, parliamentary secretary to International Development Minister Bev Oda.
The government, which has significant support from social conservatives, had until now declined to say what its position on abortion would be, even after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said abortion was one of many tools to help women in poor countries.
The main opposition Liberal Party said Harper was following in the lead of former U.S. President George W. Bush, whose administration also refused aid for groups that funded abortions.
"Canada is now taking an ideological position and frankly I think they've raised something which could well have been avoided in the effort to create a stronger international consensus," said Liberal foreign affairs spokesman Bob Rae.
Oda was in the Atlantic city of Halifax for a G8 aid ministers' meeting that will run from Monday to Wednesday.
Harper said in January that it was unacceptable that 500,000 women die in pregnancy or childbirth every year and 9 million children die before their fifth birthday.
But United States and Britain are among the G8 nations who say abortion helps protect women in developing nations.
"You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health and reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortions," Clinton said last month during a visit to Canada.
Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said Clinton had been expressing a personal view.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Janet Guttsman