Justin Trudeau paused, looked over the heads of reporters, and started to respond three times before finally spitting out the surprise announcement that Liberal MPs elected in 2015 would be expected to vote against putting limits on abortion.

The May edict, delivered as it was in response to a reporter's question, left some wondering whether he was making up policy on the fly. It didn't help that Trudeau and the party twice later clarified what he meant.

Liberal officials say Trudeau was simply voicing the firm ideal they've held since a 2012 policy convention, at which 90 per cent of those present affirmed the party's pro-choice stance.

But, at the same time, they allow that the policy could also help them pick up female voters, a group they'll need to be able to cut into the suburban ridings in which the Conservatives rule.

Support for abortion rights was included in the party's green-light process, the application and interview used by every party to screen candidates.

Making it a green-light issue came about partly out of a concern, one senior party official said, that single-issue candidates would take advantage of the party's plan for open nominations and manage to get a block of social conservatives elected (although critics would argue the party's open-nomination pledge hasn't been universally applied). Trudeau's assertion that future Liberal MPs will have to vote against limiting abortion rights was meant in part to defend against those single-issue candidates. 

The move to distinguish themselves from old-guard Liberals became more clear Thursday when seven former Liberal MPs released an open letter calling Trudeau "undemocratic." The group of former MPs includes two who now work with Campaign Life Coalition, which fights for legal limits on abortion.

'Happy coincidence'

The Liberals are happy to talk about their pro-choice policy, seeing it as a way to be clear they are no longer the party that included a socially conservative contingent. One senior Liberal official, who requested anonymity to be able to speak freely, said the party leadership also felt they lost women's votes over the years when they didn't take a clear position on the matter.

"There had to be a baseline stance of what the Liberal Party of Canada stands for," the official said.

Pressed on whether the party expects to attract more women with its pro-choice policy, the official agreed it was possible.

"It has that happy coincidence that it isn't going to hurt us electorally."

The party's caucus still includes a handful of anti-abortion MPs, who were left waiting for clarity when Trudeau said they'd be grandfathered into the new policy, but who seem ready to fall into line if the issue comes up for a vote in the House.

Party officials say the plan is to hold more free votes, but there are three policies on which the Liberals won't allow for a difference of opinion:

  • Abortion rights. 
  • Same-sex marriage rights. 
  • National unity.

'Times have changed'

Justin Trudeau

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, centre, with his children Xavier and Ella, left. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

​The Liberals say they've done no polling on the issue and refer to past polls that showed Canadians are split on what types of limits they want on abortion, but don't want to see a renewed debate about it.

Most recently, Trudeau has been sounding the women's rights note ever louder, arguing it's not up to a male-dominated Parliament to decide on reproductive rights.

"It is not for a room full of predominantly male legislators to take away those rights from women," Trudeau said in June.​

Trudeau repeated the sentiment this week when faced with the letter from the seven ex-Liberal MPs.

"The days when old men get to decide what a woman does with her body are long gone. Times have changed for the better," he tweeted.

Liberal MP John McKay, who would like to see limits on when women can terminate their pregnancies, seemed to sum up his party's position in an interview last May.

If the party "just doesn't want you to go there, then that's a reality, and in spite of the fact that I might think to the contrary."