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This article was published 26/4/2012 (2757 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper and interim Liberal leader Bob Rae have found themselves on the defensive as a backbencher's effort to reopen debate on abortion threatens to reveal divisions within their respective parties.
Parliamentarians spent an hour Thursday night discussing a private member's bill put forward by Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth, that seeks to establish a Commons committee to hear from experts on the definition of a human being.
A vote on the motion is expected in June or September.
Critics have alleged that in not clamping down on Woodworth, Harper intentionally has allowed the ever-polarizing discussion to proceed without breaking a Conservative promise during the federal election not to reopen the abortion debate.
But some anti-abortion Conservative backbenchers also have been critical of the prime minister in recent months over what they claim is an effort to stifle any movement within the party to put the issue on the political agenda.
Speaking in the Commons a few hours before the debate Thursday, Harper appeared to be trying to walk a fine line, saying he has no control over which private members' bills are presented to Parliament for debate, but that he would be opposing it.
"This particular motion was deemed votable by an all-party committee of the House," he said. "I think that was unfortunate. In my case, I will be voting against the motion."
Fellow Conservative MP Maxime Bernier told reporters he also would be voting against Woodworth's motion because it violated the party's election promise. However, he did not say whether cabinet ministers, a number of whom have spoken against abortion in the past, have been ordered to do the same.
Rae found himself facing a similar situation on Thursday.
The interim Liberal leader criticized Harper for not quashing Woodworth's effort to reopen the debate, while refusing to order his own party members — some of whom are also anti-abortion — to vote against the motion.
Asked to explain the apparent discrepancy, Rae told reporters he was opposed to forcing party members to vote a certain way on a private member's bill.
He then accused the Conservatives of using such bills in the past to address controversial issues, such as the long-gun registry.
John McKay, one of a handful of sitting Liberal MPs opposed to abortion, acknowledged the tensions that exist between his personal conviction and his party's official position.
But he said it is only one difference of opinion among a range of issues, the vast majority of which he and the party position are in agreement. For that reason, he was reluctant to see the debate reopened or to participate in it.
"You end up arguing among friends," he said. "Who wants to end up arguing among family?"
In contrast to the other two federal parties, the NDP presented a united front, saying it would unanimously oppose Woodworth's motion.
"We're on one side of this issue, they're on the other," said NDP MP Charlie Angus.
"We should not return to using coat hangers (or) vacuum cleaners," NDP status of women critic Niki Ashton said.
"This is the Conservative party's 'Trojan horse' agenda.
"During an election and even here in the House of Commons, they tell Canadians one thing and then they win... a majority government and we see what they truly mean.
"If the prime minister didn't want a woman's right to choose to be debated, we wouldn't be here tonight."
Ashton said the Conservative party can learn a lesson from its "sister party," the Wildrose party, which was predicted to win a large majority in Alberta's provincial election earlier this week but won fewer than two dozen seats.
"Why? Because they scared people. They talked about conscience rights. Turning the clock back on the rights of women, same-sex rights and so on," she said.
During the actual debate on Thursday night, Gordon O'Connor, the chief government whip, spoke against the motion, arguing that opening up the abortion debate "will lead to increased conflict as an attempt is made to turn back the clock."
He said he would not be voting on the motion and encouraged others to do the same.
By allowing the motion to stand, "it is clear this government cannot be trusted," said Liberal health critic Hedy Fry, who called the Conservative government "disingenuous."
She called it a " 'backdoor trial balloon' to see what the public would say. If it's too hot to handle, it would be withdrawn."
— Postmedia News