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Tory Leader Stephen Harper waits to speak at a campaign event in Conception Bay, Nfld, on April 21, 2011. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Tory Leader Stephen Harper waits to speak at a campaign event in Conception Bay, Nfld, on April 21, 2011. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Behind Harper's reluctance to revisit abortion issue Add to ...

The millstone of abortion was the very last thing Stephen Harper needed hanging around his neck at this late stage of the federal election campaign, which is why he moved so swiftly to insist his government would never, ever revisit the issue.

But for a passionate minority within his own caucus, limiting a woman's right to choose remains a first cause. Fear that the Conservatives could ignite a culture war may be one reason why, at least according to the polls, most Canadians are still reluctant to entrust them with a majority government.

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An audio recording reveals that Brad Trost, a Conservative Saskatchewan MP and candidate, congratulated members of the Saskatchewan ProLife Association for helping him - through their petitions and other efforts - terminate funding for the International Planned Parenthood Association.

The Conservatives quickly replied that no decision on the association's grant request had been made. But other party leaders were quick to pounce.

"To see the potential for that kind of influence in the backrooms of the Conservative Party naturally is worrying," NDP Leader Jack Layton told reporters.

Michael Ignatieff agreed. "This is the way the Conservative Party operates," the Liberal Leader said. "This is why people talk about a secret agenda. Nothing is clear. Nothing is transparent."

Mr. Harper moved swiftly to insist that none of this suggested a Conservative majority government would revisit the right of a woman to have an abortion.

"In our party, as in any broadly based party, there are people with a wide range of views on this issue," he told reporters.

But "as long as I am prime minister we are not opening the abortion debate. The government will not bring forward any such legislation and any such legislation that is brought forward will be defeated as long as I am prime minister."

He went further. "My position is, I'm not opening this debate. I don't want it opened. I have not wanted it opened. I haven't opened it as prime minister. I'm not going to open it. The public doesn't want to open it. This is not the priority of the Canadian public or this government and it will not be."

Case closed? No, because for some people it will never be closed, and some of them are in the Conservative caucus.

The Reform roots of the Conservative Party were nourished by social conservatives who believe Canada had drifted dangerously far from its Christian cultural roots, who oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, who want government to take a tougher stance on crime while protecting a gun owner's rights.

As prime minister, Mr. Harper has enacted a tough-on-crime agenda and fought to scrap the long-gun registry while avoiding more vexed questions of abortion and gay marriage.

Soon after coming to power, the government held a free vote on whether to revisit the same-sex marriage law. A good portion of the Conservative caucus joined with the opposition to defeat the idea.

Conservatives have also joined with the opposition to defeat a private member's bill that would have made it a crime to "coerce" a woman to have an abortion. That bill was sponsored by a Conservative MP.

The social-conservative rump remains a significant, though far from dominant, force within caucus. Catering to them, critics say, was the reason the Conservatives' maternal-health initiative for women in developing countries, which was joined by other members of the G8, does not provide funding for abortion services. (Other G8 nations chose to ignore that provision.)

But that is about as far is Mr. Harper will be prepared to go. Most urban Canadians are more socially liberal than their rural counterparts.

Fighting to limit a woman's right to abortion may go down well with pro-lifers in Saskatchewan, but it won't ever be on Mr. Harper's agenda.

Editor's note: A previous online version of this story incorrectly said that Conservatives had joined with the opposition to defeat Bill C-484, The Unborn Victims of Crime Act. In fact, the bill passed second reading with the support of many Conservatives, but died with the dissolution of Parliament before the 2008 election. This version has been corrected.

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