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Bloc seeks abortion rights vote, as Tories told to stay silent on U.S. draft ruling

Abortion remains a thorny political issue for the Conservatives, as Canada reacts to U.S. situation
Interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen rises during Question Period, Wednesday, April 27, 2022 in Ottawa. Conservative caucus members have been instructed not to comment on a leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion, suggesting the top court could overturn a 1973 decision that legalized abortion. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The Bloc Québécois was set to ask the House of Commons to vote on a motion Tuesday confirming the right to an abortion, while Conservative MPs are being warned against commenting on the U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion that has thrown the issue back into the domestic spotlight.

Canadian leaders are among the millions reacting to the news first reported Monday by Politico of a leaked draft opinion by the U.S. top court, suggesting it could overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion countrywide.

“The right to choose is a woman’s right and a woman’s right alone. Every woman in Canada has a right to a safe and legal abortion,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted Tuesday.

“We’ll never back down from protecting and promoting women’s rights in Canada and around the world.”

The draft decision south of the border also prompted the Bloc Québécois to signal Tuesday it would present a unanimous consent motion after question period confirming that a woman’s body is hers alone, as is her decision to have an abortion for whatever reason.

Earlier Tuesday, Conservative MPs and senators had been warned by the office of interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen to avoid making any comments on the draft opinion.

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the one-sentence memo.

It is not uncommon for the leader’s office to ask MPs to refrain from commenting on certain issues. In this case, according to a statement from Bergen on Tuesday, MPs were told to stay silent because it would be inappropriate to comment on a matter for the U.S. courts.

Abortion nonetheless remains a thorny political issue for the Conservatives. The party is in the middle of a leadership race in which anti-abortion groups are mobilizing to back candidates who oppose the procedure.

Many Tory MPs also oppose abortion and have over the years brought forward different private member’s bills to try to tighten access.

Ontario MP Leslyn Lewis, who is anti-abortion, is among those heavily favoured by social conservatives in the leadership contest. She is running a campaign that includes what she calls a “No Hidden Agenda” plank in her platform, which includes promises to ban sex-selective abortion and stop funding abortion services overseas.

A campaign spokesman on Tuesday said she wouldn’t comment on the draft decision because it isn’t final.

At least one Conservative leadership hopeful did wade into the debate, warning against Tories once again finding themselves on the receiving end of attacks from the Liberals on the abortion issue.

“While this is a U.S. decision, in its wake it’s important for leaders to commit to protecting women’s rights,” Patrick Brown, mayor of Brampton, Ont., said in a statement.

He went on to say the draft decision gives Trudeau’s Liberal government — which brokered a deal with the federal NDP to stay in power until 2025 — “a lifeline to extend their power far beyond 2025, by making Canadians afraid of Conservatives.”

“Abortion in Canada should be safe, legal and, in my personal opinion, rare,” Brown said.

“That’s why my government will support women and families with policies that encourage other options, such as adoption and increased parental supports … A Conservative party led by me will not change Canada’s abortion laws. Period.”

Michelle Coates Mather, a spokeswoman for Jean Charest’s campaign, said on Tuesday that the former Quebec premier supports abortion rights and would never vote on a private member’s bill promising to restrict access.

The campaigns of Pierre Poilievre, Scott Aitchison and Roman Baber did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

The last time the House of Commons voted on an abortion-related matter was in June 2021 when it defeated a private member’s bill, brought forward by backbench Conservative Saskatchewan MP Cathay Wagantall, to ban so-called sex-selective abortions that she said targeted girls.

A majority of Conservative MPs voted in favour of the defeated bill, including Bergen. She was deputy leader at the time.

Bergen pushed back Tuesday against criticisms toward her party’s stance on abortion. She said access to the procedure was not restricted when Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper was in power, and accused Trudeau of using the issue to divide Canadians.

In spite of her own support for the past sex-selective abortion bill, Bergen said “the Conservative party will not introduce legislation or reopen the abortion debate.”

Abortion also became an issue for former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole during last year’s federal election campaign once it was revealed that his platform included a pledge to protect the conscience rights of health-care workers from having to perform procedures they find objectionable.

During the election, the Liberals themselves made a series of promises to improve abortion access in Canada, including regulating access under the Canada Health Act.

The mandate letter for Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos calls on him to reinforce compliance under the act, develop a sexual and reproductive health rights information portal and support youth-led grassroots organizations that respond to the unique sexual and reproductive health needs of young people.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office has been tasked with changing the country’s Income Tax Act to revoke charitable status from anti-abortion groups, like crisis pregnancy centres.

The recent federal budget did not earmark any specific funding for reproductive rights.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Tuesday the federal government could take two major steps to protect abortion rights in Canada.

“One, commit to increasing health transfers, to make sure the overall system is properly funded, and two, in any case where a province is not funding appropriately services that should be covered by the Canada Health Act … enforce the rules,” he said.

Singh said the act contains measures that allow Ottawa to withhold health-care funding when a province is not providing a service that should be publicly available.

The offices of Duclos and Freeland have not yet responded to requests for comment.

—Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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