Evan Solomon, host of CBC Radio's The House, reflects on the decision by the Minister of Status for Women Rona Ambrose not to explain her decision to vote in favour of a private member's bill to study when human life begins, in his weekly radio essay as heard on The House Sept. 29.

This week, NDP Deputy Leader Libby Davies said, "I think she can rationalize it how she wants but as the [Minister] for Status of Women, she clearly betrayed the women of this country by not standing up and ensuring that we don't let the clock be turned backwards."

Strong words from MPs such as Davies were heard this week after Rona Ambrose, the Minister for the Status of Women, voted for a private member's motion – put forward by Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth – to study the definition of when life begins, a motion many argued was a step towards reopening the abortion debate.

Several members of the Conservative caucus like Eve Adams opposed it.

Adams said, "our government and all parties should be focused on talking about how women can play leadership roles in boardrooms across the country, not keeping women in the kitchen."

So, was Ambrose's vote really a betrayal of women?

Here's some context: 

A total of eight cabinet ministers such as Jason Kenney, Peter Van Loan, and Gail Shea voted to support the controversial motion.

Ministers of State such as Diane Ablonczy and Alice Wong also voted in favour of the motion.

So this issue clearly does not break along gender lines, only.  

Four Liberal MPs also voted for it.

Only the NDP voted en mass against it.

On private member bills, MPs and cabinet ministers can vote their conscience. There is usually no party line.

So, does the open support by cabinet ministers really signal that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is secretly trying to reopen the abortion debate as the Opposition claims?

Well, Harper has repeatedly stated he won't reopen that debate and earlier this year, Gordon O'Connor, the Government Whip, re-iterated that position in the House of Commons:

O'Connor said, "while the issue may continue to be debated by some, as in a private member's motion tonight, I state again that the government's position is clear: It will not reopen this debate."

Still the motion is important but what does the vote on it signal?

It may signal, for instance, the positioning of Kenney, the Immigration Minister, in a future leadership race.

As John Ivison pointed out in the National Post, Kenney's vote may have political implications down the line.

After all, Kenney, an outspoken social conservative, is widely seen as a frontrunner to replace Harper.

Under a Kenney-run party, would the abortion debate be reopened?  Fair question.

But clearly, the Minister for the Status of Women has different obligations on a subject like this.

What does her vote mean?

Was it a declaration of her position on abortion? We don't really know.

Even conservative commentators like Tim Powers have written that, whatever her position may be, her lack of full public communication on such a divisive issue is "a mistake."

Condemning sex-selective abortion 

We asked Ambrose to come on the program today to explain, but she was unavailable.

She did send out one tweet, however, on a related issue saying "I have repeatedly raised concerns about discrimination of girls by sex selection abortion: no law needed, but we need awareness!"

Why tweet on this issue?

Well, one explanation could be that her colleague Mark Warawa is set to put forward a private member's motion on same- sex selection abortion, an issue critics say is also a trojan horse used to reopen the abortion debate.

Now too often we complain about robotic talking point politicians, so I guess it's refreshing to have politicians vote their conscience.

But should that right really alleviate them of the responsibility of transparency, especially on such a divisive issue?

Does the minister in charge have extra obligations to explain why she voted against her own leader?

Should ministers have a free vote?


But should they also expect to get a free pass?

Well, that one is up to you!

Let me know what you think.

You can send me an email at thehouse@cbc.ca