Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole was repeatedly pressed Monday morning about his pro-choice stance on abortion as his MP Cathay Wagantall readies a bill aimed at restricting abortion access.
The private member’s bill looks to amend the Criminal Code to outlaw medical practitioners from performing abortions based on the sex of the fetus — a practice sexual health group Action Canada says is next to non-existent in Canada.
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“Restricting abortion access in any way is an attack on women’s rights, not a way to address gender-based discrimination,” said Action Canada’s Sarah Kennell in a statement.
On her website, Wagantall describes the bill as addressing “inequality between the sexes in its earliest forms.”
“Sex selective abortion happens in Canada. It is not permissible in a society that advocates for equality of the sexes,” she wrote.
“Adopting appropriate legislation to end discrimination against any person based on sex is part of Canada’s commitment to advancing human rights.”
However, upwards of 90 per cent of abortions happen before the end of the first trimester — well before the sex of the fetus can be discovered, according to sexual health advocacy group Action Canada’s website.
“While sex selective abortion in Canada may take place in some instances, it is incredibly rare and the reasons why people may make that choice are varied,” the website explains.
If Wagantall really wants to address gender-based discrimination, Kennell said, there are “proven and meaningful ways to do so.”
“We need to see comprehensive sex-ed, awareness campaigns on consent, pay equity, parental leave measures, barrier-free access to contraception and other comprehensive social support services like pharmacare and universal childcare,” she said.
When pressed repeatedly on the bill on Monday, O’Toole affirmed that he wouldn’t support it — but he wouldn’t say whether he plans to direct his caucus colleagues to do the same.
“As you know, I’m pro-choice and I will be voting against this private member’s bill. I will always, as prime minister, defend the rights, human rights of all Canadians including women to make this decision for themselves,” O’Toole said.
“I’ve been crystal clear on that and will be as prime minister.”
However, O’Toole also stated that no laws restricting abortion will pass as long as he’s at the helm of the party.
“Being pro-choice means I will defend that right and there will be no law passed that will restrict the rights of Canadians,” he said.
Abortion rights advocates say that holding a pro-choices stance entails “supporting a person’s right to decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy for whatever reason, even if one personally does not agree with their reason.”
“It is important to remember that we cannot restrict the right to abortion just because some people might make decisions we disagree with,” the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada wrote in a position paper published in November.
When pressed on how he can reconcile his personal stance on abortion with the fact that he’s allowing his MP to pursue the legislation, O’Toole claimed it was an issue of freedom of speech.
“I’m a pro-choice member of Parliament, was elected leaders of the Conservatives in that fashion. I will always defend the rights of all Canadians and focus on their prosperity. That is my relentless focus,” he said.
But, he said, “there is freedom of speech of all members of Parliament including with private motions and bills.”
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O’Toole’s position is largely a continuation of the policies under the previous Conservative government, which did not legislate on abortion but came under criticism for allowing backbench MPs to put forward bills seeking to limit abortion and keep the proposals in the spotlight.
O’Toole was criticized by his competitor Peter MacKay during the Conservative leadership race for his stance on abortion. While O’Toole billed himself as a pro-choice candidate and leader, he also said he would allow his cabinet members to have free votes on matters of conscience.
He also voted in support of Bill C-225 in 2016, which sought to make it a criminal offence to “cause injury or death to a preborn child while committing or attempting to commit an offence against a pregnant woman.”
The bill failed and was widely criticized as a backdoor attempt to impart legal rights on a fetus, which critics warned would have the effect of granting a legal foothold for broader efforts to restrict abortion.
When pressed on his support of the bill shortly after becoming Conservative leader, O’Toole denied it was aimed at restricting abortion.
“It was a bill on public safety, in fact, and I voted in favour to have debate in committee on that bill because it was on safety for women,” he said.
“That is my approach. It’s possible to listen to people and be a pro-choice MP.”
— With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly
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