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Conservatives scramble to head off brewing controversy over abortion

OTTAWA - Stephen Harper says the Conservative government will never reopen the contentious debate about abortion rights in Canada as long as he's prime minister.

Harper was responding to a growing storm of campaign controversy surrounding abortion-related comments made by a Tory candidate in Saskatchewan.

"In our party, as in any broadly based party, there are people with a range of views on this issue," Harper said during a campaign event in Conception Bay South, N.L.

"As long as I'm prime minister, we are not reopening the abortion debate ... this is not the priority of the Canadian people or of this government."

Brad Trost told an anti-abortion group on the weekend that International Planned Parenthood Federation has been denied Canadian funding because it supports abortion.

The comments hit the Conservative tour like a lightning bolt, prompting Tory spokesman Dimitri Soudas to summon reporters in an effort to get ahead of the story.

Soudas sang the praises of the government's G8 initiative on child and maternal health, offering it as evidence that the Conservatives are champions of women's rights.

The Tories are willing to work with organizations that are willing to work with them, Soudas said, including the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which has indeed made an application for funding under the G8 initiative.

Federation spokesman Paul Bell, reached in London, said the group has had a "continuous relationship" with Canada for the last 40 years, during which they've received consistent funding — until recently.

A bid submitted in 2009 for a renewal worth $6 million a year over three years, the same arrangement that was in place for the previous three years, was unsuccessful, Bell said.

So the federation submitted an unsolicited bid through the G8 initiative last year, but it seems to have been stalled at the stage where it would have been reviewed by International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda.

"Clearly it didn't get approval before the end of the financial year, which was the end of March," Bell said.

"So for 2010 we didn't get any funding. Now the election's been called so there's unlikely to be an movement on that."

Trost, meanwhile, has been making efforts in recent months to block the federation's funding, he added.

"It's always a concern when a member of Parliament takes that course, but that happens in a number of countries. There are people who campaign against the work that we do."

NDP Leader Jack Layton, whose party supports "a woman's right to choose," calls the reports "worrying."

He says Trost's remarks imply the Tories harbour a hidden agenda on abortion.

Layton said the brewing controversy "certainly gives us concerns about the Conservative approach."

That sentiment was echoed by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

"Canadian women think, 'Wait a minute, where are these guys going with this? What do they have in mind?'" said Ignatieff, adding that he supports a women's right to choose, as does his party.

"This is the way the Conservative party operates. This is why people talk about a secret agenda. Nothing is clear, nothing is transparent."

Oda issued a statement Thursday insisting Planned Parenthood would get funding if its application "falls within the government's parameters."

"That's good to know," Bell said. "Maybe she's talking about 2011 onwards."

Soudas also said the government would work with "organizations like International Planned Parenthood that will focus its energy and efforts on the criteria that we have laid out."

Despite Harper's efforts, the issue is now back on the front burner of the election campaign, with less than two weeks before Canadians go to the polls.

The Tories have run the same tight, orchestrated campaign that delivered Harper to power in 2006.

But they are clearly moving to avoid a repeat of the 2004 election campaign gaffe that saw backbencher Cheryl Gallant compare abortion to the beheading of hostages in Iraq, spoiling Harper's first attempt to win power, and giving the Liberals a minority government.

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