'I'm pro-choice,' O'Toole says as abortion issue emerges on the campaign trail

Pushing back against Liberal claims that he's just "pretending" to support a woman's right to choose, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said today he's pro-choice and a government led by him would make sure abortion services are available nationwide.

The Liberals are raising questions about 'conscience rights' in the Conservative platform

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks to the media Wednesday, August 18, 2021 in Quebec City. Canadians will vote in a federal election Sept. 20. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Pushing back against Liberal claims that he's just "pretending" to support a woman's right to choose, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said today he's pro-choice and a government led by him would make sure abortion services are available nationwide.

O'Toole has been clear that women should be allowed to safely end pregnancies — a position that has drawn the ire of some socially conservative members of his party. His predecessor, Andrew Scheer, described himself as "pro life."

O'Toole also recently voted against a bill introduced by a fellow Conservative caucus member that would have banned "sex-selective" abortions. While most Conservative MPs backed the legislation, O'Toole did not.

"I'm pro-choice and I'm a pro-choice leader, period," O'Toole told reporters today at an Ottawa campaign stop.

"Let me be perfectly clear. As a pro-choice leader of this party, I will make sure that we defend the rights of women to make the choice for themselves with respect to their own health. We will make sure abortion services are available from one ocean to the other."

In a series of social media posts, Liberal incumbent MP Maryam Monsef said O'Toole's pro-choice claims shouldn't be believed.

"Tonight in Quebec, Erin O'Toole pretended to be pro-choice. He did the same thing in his platform. But in reality, he'll let his team bring forward legislation to restrict abortion access. That's the same position as Andrew Scheer," Monsef said, citing a speech O'Toole gave in Quebec last night meant to reassure voters there that he is not anti-abortion.

"Under Erin O'Toole's watch, 81 Conservative MPs voted to reopen the abortion debate. That's the majority of his caucus," Monsef added. "That included members of his handpicked leadership team. In the Conservative Party, the rights of women are up for debate."

Other Liberal candidates also jumped on O'Toole's platform promise to protect the "conscience rights" of health care professionals like nurses and doctors who object to some procedures.

"The challenges of dealing with COVID-19 have reminded us of the vital importance of health care professionals — the last thing Canada can afford to do is drive any of these professionals out of their profession," the Conservative platform says.

WATCH: Conservative leader talks about the conscience rights of medical professionals

Conservative leader talks about the conscience rights of medical professionals

2 years ago
Duration 2:05
Erin O'Toole spoke with reporters after the Liberal Party raised the issue of conscience rights in the Conservative Party platform. O'Toole was campaigning in the Ottawa suburb of Nepean on Thursday.

Liberal candidate Carolyn Bennett said that, by including this clause in the party platform, O'Toole is signalling he would "let doctors deny and prevent referral for abortion, medical assistance in dying and care for LGBTQ2 Canadians. O'Toole and his team ... are pushing extreme-right policies."

She said O'Toole is "far outside the mainstream" for backing a policy that "only a handful of southern U.S. states have passed."

On Twitter, Bennett posted a link to an interview between Jack Fonseca — an organizer with the Campaign Life Coalition, an anti-abortion group — and Dr. Leslyn Lewis, a former Conservative leadership contender and a candidate for the party in this election.

In the interview, Lewis tells Fonesca that she would support government legislation that would protect the conscience rights of health care workers who refuse to "refer or participate in abortion or euthanasia."

Asked about his platform commitment, O'Toole said today he supports the right of women to access abortion but would also "defend conscience rights for our incredible men and women on the frontlines of our health care system."

'This is not ... a contradiction'

He said the two positions are not at odds. "This is not at all a contradiction. I think it's very important to defend the rights of all Canadians — that's what I will do," he said. "Let's find an appropriate and fair balance to make sure those rights are accessed but we respect conscience provisions as well."

O'Toole said protecting the right to object to some procedures is particularly important now that Parliament is studying an expansion to the medical assistance in dying (MAID) regime.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the Conservative pledge to legislate the conscience rights of doctors who oppose services like abortion means O'Toole isn't really pro-choice.

"Pro-choice doesn't mean the freedom of doctors to choose. It means the freedom of women to choose. Leaders have to be unequivocal on that. He's saying certain things to some people and the opposite to others and that's not good enough," Trudeau said.

"The Conservative party doesn't actually understand what pro-choice means."

Conscience rights for doctors are already recognized in Canada.

In B.C., for example, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia, the governing body for the province's doctors, recognizes "conscientious objection" and doctors are allowed to "make a personal choice not to provide a treatment or procedure based on their values and beliefs." Similarly, in Ontario, doctors "have the right to limit the health services they provide for reasons of conscience or religion."

The issue also has been adjudicated in Canadian courts.

For example, in a 2019 decision, Ontario's highest court ruled that while doctors may object to assisted dying, contraception and abortion, they are legally obligated to provide patients with "effective referrals" to other medical professionals who are willing to perform these procedures or write a particular prescription.

A group of doctors challenging the practice, led by the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, had argued forced referrals would clash with their moral or religious beliefs while the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario said allowing physicians to simply refuse certain services without a referral could cause harm to patients.

The Court of Appeal for Ontario found that the college's policy on referrals was a reasonable compromise that balances patients' interests and physicians' Charter-protected religious freedom.

Since this decision, social conservative groups have been pushing for federal legislation that would criminalize those who "intimidate" doctors to get them to perform a particular service. A Conservative Saskatchewan MP, Kelly Block, introduced a private member's bill, C-268, on this issue last year.

In an effort to neutralize Liberal criticisms about its policy position, the Conservative Party sent reporters a list of past quotes from Liberal MPs that demonstrate their support for conscience rights.

During a November 2020 committee meeting where MPs discussed the Liberal government's legislation to expand MAID, Justice Minister David Lametti said conscience rights would be enshrined in the law.

"No medical practitioner is forced to give the procedure in any way, shape or form, and we've protected that. It already was protected, and we further protected it back in 2016 in the legislation," he said, referring to the government's first bill to legalize MAID in Canada.

During debate earlier this year on Bill C-268 — legislation to outlaw attempts to intimidate health care workers — Liberal incumbent MP Arif Virani said "protecting the freedom of conscience of our health care professionals is obviously a laudable goal."

In 2016, Liberal incumbent MP Filomena Tassi, the minister for seniors, also said she "will always respect the conscience rights of doctors."

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In his 2015 memoir, Common Ground, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wrote about his position on abortion and how it compared to that of his father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who was a devout Catholic.

"In the spring of 2014, I would announce a firm stance in favour of a woman's right to choose. It was a big change for some of my parliamentary colleagues," Trudeau wrote, referring to his 2014 edict that all future Liberal candidates must be pro-choice and vote against anti-abortion legislation if elected.

"My idea of freedom is that we should protect the rights of people to believe what their conscience dictates, but fight equally hard to protect people from having the beliefs of others imposed upon them," Trudeau wrote.

O'Toole calls for an end to gay blood donor ban

In addition to stating his support for abortion rights, O'Toole also sought to reassure moderate voters today that he is attuned to LGBTQ issues.

In the 2015 campaign, the Liberal Party vowed to end the discrimination that gay men face when trying to donate blood but, while in government, they've only made tweaks to the regime.

The Canadian Blood Services has replaced its lifetime ban on donations from men who have sex with men with a new requirement that says would-be donors must be celibate for three months before giving blood — a change activists say doesn't go far enough.

As part of a push to end these restrictions, Conservative incumbent MP Eric Duncan, who is gay, tabled a motion in the Commons this year calling on Ottawa to end the discriminatory policy.

O'Toole backed the motion at the time, saying it's "unfair" and "wrong" that gay men can't freely donate blood because of their sexuality when "Canada is in desperate need of blood donations."

"We've been holding Mr. Trudeau to account for his broken promises to gay men," O'Toole said today.

"I want members of the LGBTQ community to know if they want something looked at, if they're advocating for an issue ... we want to make sure that the federal government is responsive to the needs of all Canadians, in all communities."

O'Toole also promised to have Health Canada study whether "poppers" — a grey market drug often used by gay men before sex — should be legalized.


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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