HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (Reuters) - The world's leading industrialized nations support a Canadian proposal to boost maternal health in the Third World, even though Ottawa refuses to fund groups that perform or advocate abortions, Canada's aid minister said on Wednesday.
Bev Oda, Canada's minister of international cooperation, was speaking at the end of a three-day meeting of Group of Eight aid ministers who will report to a leaders' summit at the end of June. Canada is chairing the G8 this year.
"All G8 members lauded Canada's initiative to champion healthier mothers, healthier babies and to reduce maternal and child mortality," Oda told reporters.
"My colleagues all believe that progress will be made to reduce the number of deaths," she said. The ministers did not discuss how much the initiative would cost, she added.
Canada says it is unacceptable that 500,000 women die in pregnancy or childbirth every year and 9 million children die before their fifth birthday.
Ottawa's refusal to countenance abortion funding puts it at odds with the United States, Britain and other G8 members, who say access to safe abortions helps protect mothers. Canada says it does back family planning.
Oda said the G8 had agreed that each country would decide for itself how best to help improve maternal health.
"We agreed that our efforts would need to include nutrition (and) disease prevention and that all of our actions should cover the full continuum of care from pre-pregnancy, pregnancy, delivery and early childhood," Oda said.
Six aid groups issued a statement complaining Canada was allowing the "potential for hope and opportunity to be swallowed up" by a political debate on abortion.
"Of the 500,000 maternal deaths that occur each year, 60 percent of them occur from things like postpartum bleeding, hemorrhaging and yet there hasn't been much discussion on (that)," World Vision spokeswoman Caroline Riseboro told Reuters on Wednesday.
"It's unfortunate it (the abortion debate) became the only focus because 8.8 million children are dying under the age of five each year," she said.
Dr. Rajiv Shah, head of the United States Agency for International Development, said Washington agreed with the Canadian position on family planning while noting the Obama administration also supported "a comprehensive approach to maternal health."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last month that safe abortion was a way to help women in poor countries.