Scheer faces backlash from national anti-abortion group over mixed messaging

Conservative Party Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt says any attempt by backbench MPs to re-open the abortion debate would be shut down by a Conservative government — a position a national anti-abortion group says it finds "deeply" troubling.

Deputy Conservative Leader Lisa Raitt says Scheer government would oppose moves to re-open divisive debates

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer addressed questions for the first time in a week on Thursday. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

Conservative Party Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt says any attempt by backbench MPs to re-open the abortion debate would be shut down by a Conservative government — a position a national anti-abortion group says it finds "deeply" troubling.

Jack Fonseca, Campaign Life Coalition's director of political operations, said Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's news conference Thursday delivered more of the "vague and contradictory" answers on abortion that he gave during the 2017 Conservative leadership campaign.

Fonseca pointed out that Scheer said that he would respect the democratic right of backbench MPs to bring forward issues important to them — but also said he would oppose measures or attempts to open the abortion debate.

"The latter statement seems to cancel out the former," he told CBC in an email.

"It suggests he may in fact use intimidation or threats to prevent MPs from bringing forward pro-life private members' business, or to coerce his caucus to vote against such measures, which for many would be to vote against their own consciences."

If a Prime Minister Scheer did use threats to keep the caucus in line, that would amount to "betrayal" of the anti-abortion movement, Fonseca said.

Fonseca said it's reasonable to interpret Scheer's remarks as suggesting that he personally would vote against any measure related to abortion.

"That's also a very negative implication for Scheer personally and morally, because it means an end to his unblemished pro-life voting record in the House of Commons," he said. "And we'd probably have to change his rating to a red light."

Conservative MPs 'bound' by convention

Speaking to CBC Radio's The House on Friday, Raitt said Scheer's position has been clear: a Conservative government would not muzzle any of its MPs but would also work to defeat any moves to restrict abortion.

As Scheer faces pressure to clarify and explain his personal views on social policy issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, Raitt suggested those views are less important to Canadians than how the party would actually act on those issues.

Raitt said she sat beside Scheer for nearly four years and never once had a personal conversation with him about those matters, because all Conservative MPs are bound to the same policy and convention. She pointed out that Scheer supported removing the traditional definition of marriage from the party's official policy book in 2016.

"Other people are going to try and talk about the personal aspect of it, and really what matters is knowing that, at the end of the day, that no Conservative government is going to open any of these issues up," Raitt told Chris Hall, host of The House.

"More importantly, we will oppose it and we'll make sure that it doesn't come into law."

Conservative Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt tells CBC Radio's The House that an Andrew Scheer government would oppose any moves to re-open the abortion debate. (David Kawai/The Canadian Press)

Scheer faced a barrage of questions about his social policy positions at a news conference Thursday, his first public event since Liberals began raising questions about his commitment to LGBT and women's rights. He accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of dredging up divisive social issues to distract voters from a litany of Liberal scandals.

Liberal tweets

Last week, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale tweeted a video of a 14-year-old speech by Scheer in the House of Commons opposing same-sex marriage.

On Thursday, Tourism Minister Mélanie Joly tweeted out a short video clip of a media interview with Scott Hayward, founder of the anti-abortion group RightNow. In it, Hayward recounts an interview during the leadership campaign in which Scheer affirmed the right of backbench and cabinet members to raise issues related to abortion.

Outgoing Conservative MP Brad Trost, an anti-abortion advocate who was also a leadership contender in 2017, said Scheer used "mixed messaging" during the leadership race in order to draw support from both social conservatives and more liberal-minded members of the party.

"Putting together that coalition was not the easiest thing, but they managed it. I guess, congratulations for their political skill. On the other hand, it left them with a bit of a contradiction," he said.

Trost said he expects the political damage may not be severe in the end, but it could derail Scheer's election campaign if he doesn't clarify his positions adequately.

"It has for the last week. And I've got to admit, watching the Conservative communication experts — and I use that term loosely — fumble the issue ... if they keep handling all the issues like this, yeah, it will overshadow," he said. "That's more of a statement on the skill of Andrew's team rather than a statement about the strength of the issue."

Many politicians draw a line between their personal beliefs and their political positions.

An article circulating on Twitter shows that in late 2011, Trudeau told The Canadian Press that he saw no contradiction between defending the rights of gays and lesbians and the tenets of Catholicism, and noted that while he is personally very opposed to abortion, he still believes that no one can tell a woman what she should do with her body.

In 2006, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May generated some controversy by saying she is against abortion and that she didn't think a woman has a "frivolous right to choose."

With files from the CBC's Katie Simpson

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