Conservative MPs told to stay silent as U.S. abortion controversy rolls into Tory leadership race
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OTTAWA—Conservative MPs looked at their phones, their desks, anywhere but across the floor of the House of Commons on Tuesday as their opponents applauded in support of a woman’s right to have an abortion in Canada.
But most of those seeking to become the party’s next leader felt they had no choice but to stare the political reignition of the abortion debate right in the face.
The differing responses inside the Commons and on the leadership campaign trail to news the U.S. is poised to roll back abortion rights speaks to the reality that there are as few issues as challenging for today’s Conservatives.
For years, a sizable number of the party’s members, often organized by anti-abortion groups, haven’t shied away from using their influence to shape everything from riding association boards to the outcomes of leadership races.
Anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition took pride in the fact it helped four anti-abortion candidates raise the money and get the signatures to qualify for the leadership race this time, although only one of them, Leslyn Lewis, has ultimately made it onto the ballot.
That organization and others also have a voice through the handful of Conservative MPs who seek to get the debate back into Parliament during every session, at committees or via private member’s bills that would regulate or criminalize some abortions.
Together, their efforts generate persistent concerns that a future Tory government would seek to restrict abortion in Canada, an allegation levelled against the Tories during nearly every election, despite the most recent Conservative government not having made a move during more than 10 years in power.
Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen made that point Tuesday in a statement on the party’s abortion policy.
“The only ones reopening this debate are the Liberals, and Justin Trudeau is once again using women’s reproductive rights to wedge and divide Canadians,” she said.
Her statement came hours after she instructed her own MPs to stay silent on the U.S. court decision in a terse one-sentence memo obtained by the Star.
It’s not unusual for MPs to be told not to comment on international issues that don’t have a direct link to Canada.
That the U.S. Supreme Court appears set to overturn the decision in the landmark Roe v. Wade case and related ones has no impact on Canadian jurisprudence, and efforts to criminalize abortion in Canada would require a completely different path than in the U.S.
But that didn’t stop Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois MPs from jumping immediately to defend access to abortion in Canada, with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland calling it a “fundamental right.”
Some Conservatives do agree.
Even though many looked away during applause for Freeland, Quebec MP Gérard Deltell banged his desk in support.
Deltell is backing leadership candidate Jean Charest, who as Quebec premier also called abortion a right. On Tuesday, he promised as prime minister he’d never restrict it but would respect the rights of MPs to bring forward private members’ bills.
Alberta MP Michelle Rempel Garner disregarded the no-comment memo, telling her American stepdaughters she loves them and supports their rights.
“I will always, and have always, fought for the same for the women I represent in Canada,” she said.
She’s helping run Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown’s leadership campaign.
He, too, pledged to never change Canada’s laws, but also to ensure women had access to other options including adoption.
“Abortion in Canada should be safe, legal, and, in my personal opinion, rare,” Brown’s statement said.
Expanding support for pregnant women is one of the hallmarks of Leslyn Lewis’s “no hidden agenda” abortion platform, which she rolled out last week.
She had no direct comment on the U.S. news.
Lewis promises to criminalize what she calls coerced abortions, end funding for abortion programs overseas, increase funding for pregnancy centres and ban abortions carried out due to the sex of the fetus.
Saskatchewan MP Cathay Wagantall tried to introduce a bill to that effect in the last Parliament. It failed to pass, although 80 Conservatives — more than half of the caucus — voted in favour.
Among those against were leadership hopefuls and current MPs Scott Aitchison and Pierre Poilievre.
Aitchison, who supports access to abortion rights, sounded the alarm Tuesday about the importation of divisive American discourse into the Canadian political landscape.
“While there are intense and passionate convictions on either side of this debate, the vast majority of Canadians do not want this issue reopened,” he said.
Poilievre’s campaign issued a statement late Tuesday, saying a government led by him would not introduce or pass any laws restricting abortion.
While Poilievre is the front-runner, anti-abortion groups are actively telling their supporters not to vote for him, despite his economic appeal, citing his progressive track record.
Leadership candidate and Ontario MPP Roman Baber said he doesn’t think government has any role in how people start or grow families, but wrote that “I’ll respect the right of every Canadian to seek nomination, introduce legislation and vote freely on matters of conscience, regardless of their view on life.”
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz