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Leader of the Opposition Erin O'Toole rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 2, 2021, in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A majority of Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s caucus voted Wednesday in support of a bill that sought to restrict certain abortions even as he voted it down, saying he respects a woman’s right to choose.

Saskatchewan MP Cathay Wagantall brought forward Bill C-233, which sought to ban doctors from performing an abortion based on the sex of a fetus, which was defeated in a 248-82 split.

All but one of the votes cast in its favour came from the Conservatives, who have 119 members, with the other coming from former party MP and leadership contender Derek Sloan.

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O’Toole voted against the bill, as did other members of his front bench, such as his health critic Michelle Rempel Garner. Some, including deputy party leader Candice Bergen pledged their support, as did O’Toole’s leadership predecessor Andrew Scheer.

Wagantall had argued her private member’s bill was more nuanced than other debates surrounding abortion because it only looked at the issue of terminating a pregnancy through sex selection, which she and supporters – including some fellow Conservative MPs – worry disproportionately affects baby girls and framed it as an concern around women’s rights.

“Despite Erin O’Toole’s emphatic pro-choice stance and commitment to vote against this bill, exactly two-thirds of his caucus voted in favour of it,” the group named We Need a Law, which supported the bill, said in a statement.

While MPs, including Liberals, said they didn’t support sex-selective abortion, they blasted the law in previous debates as a Trojan horse attempting to restrict the reproductive rights of women, also questioning the sources of information presented in support of the bill’s cause.

Hours before Wednesday’s vote, Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef released a letter she penned to O’Toole asking the leader to call on his caucus to vote against what she calls a “dangerous bill.”

“This is in fact the seventh time since 2007 that a Conservative Member of Parliament has worked hard to limit women’s choices,” she said at a news conference.

O’Toole had previously indicated he wouldn’t support the proposed legislation as he is “pro-choice.” His office said he would, however, allow a free vote on matters of conscience for his caucus.

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In a statement before the vote, he said: “I support a woman’s right to choose and my record speaks for itself. As prime minister, my government will secure the rights of Canadians and never erode them.”

Melanie Joly, the economic development and official languages minister, appeared alongside Monsef at the news conference and said O’Toole’s stance isn’t good enough.

“It is not enough for you to personally say that you will not vote in favour of C-233 and free vote is also not good enough,” said Joly.

“For our rights to be safe, we need to to curb all policies that attempt to control women’s bodies.”

Joly suggested O’Toole allowed the bill, first introduced under the leadership of Scheer, to be kept alive in Parliament because he earned his party’s victory last summer thanks to votes from anti-abortion groups.

During the race, O’Toole made a pitch to the supporters of Sloan and Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis, who had the backing from many social conservatives, to mark him as their number 2 or number 3 choice in the ranked ballot system.

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In turn, he promised that as leader, their views would be respected.

Keeping that pledge without exposing the party to attacks from Liberals and other critics that it would allow for the debate on abortion rights to be reopened remains a balancing act for O’Toole – highlighted by the most recent vote.

Since becoming leader, he has focused his attention on speaking to those he wants to see vote Conservative in the next federal election who perhaps haven’t done so in the past, like more women, and emphasizing his views as pro-LGBTQ rights and “pro-choice.”

During the 2019 election campaign, Scheer’s socially conservative views on abortion and same-sex marriage dogged him in the lead up to the vote, as he wouldn’t immediately clarify his views.

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