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Rona Ambrose responded to a question about her decision by touting funding for projects to empower women.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Women's groups are asking whether Rona Ambrose is the right person to lead Canada's Status of Women agency after she voted in favour of a controversial motion to study the legal rights of the fetus.

The Conservative MP surprised many on Wednesday when she joined nine other cabinet ministers and about half of the Conservative caucus in supporting the motion, which was widely viewed as a potential first step to reopening a debate on abortion in Canada. The private member's motion did not have the support of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Conservative MPs had been encouraged to vote against it.

Ms. Ambrose declined to explain her decision on Thursday, even as groups including the Canadian Women's Health Network and the Quebec Women's Federation said her vote was incompatible with her role as Minister for the Status of Women.

"It's incredulous to us that she should be in this position when she voted against reproductive rights, which are one of the cornerstones of women's safety," said Janet Currie, a board member of the Canadian Women's Health Network. "She should not be in the position if she actually believes what she voted for."

Ms. Ambrose responded to a question in the House of Commons about her decision by touting government funding for projects meant to empower women and address violence. "This government has an incredible track record of standing up for Canadian women and girls," she said.

Her only public comment on the vote appeared on her Twitter account Wednesday night after a user asked her why she had voted for the motion. "I have repeatedly raised concerns about discrimination of girls by sex-selection abortion," Ms. Ambrose wrote, adding: "No law needed, but we need awareness!"

Paulette Senior, chief executive of YWCA Canada, said the minister's comments are "a different context, completely," and noted the issue of sex-selective abortion was not raised before the vote.

She said Ms. Ambrose has been a champion for empowering women and girls and credited her efforts for the establishment of the International Day of the Girl Child. But she said she was shocked to see her vote in favour of the motion. "For us, it really goes against the work we have been doing over 140 years in Canada," she said.

Reaction in Ms. Ambrose's riding was mixed. Edmonton-Spruce Grove includes a sliver of the city and stretches west to a rural county and two bedroom communities, Stony Plain and Spruce Grove. At a small west Edmonton shopping centre down the road from Ms. Ambrose's constituency office, the MP had no shortage of both supporters and critics on Thursday.

"I say good for Rona," said retiree Madeline Thornton, 68. "I would like to see the unborn having more rights."

Lanie Goebel, 62, said the health effects, such as fetal alcohol syndrome, of a mother's actions support the need for broader rights for an unborn child. "Otherwise, they have to go through the rest of their own life because of the consequences of a pregnant woman's decision," Ms. Goebel said.

But Ms. Ambrose's vote is not reflective of an overwhelming consensus in her riding. Asked about the motion to study the rights of the fetus, several women simply said they firmly believe a woman's right to choose is paramount. Kerry Dobson, an adult educator, said she was appalled by Ms. Ambrose's position, and was surprised the debate is still popping up in 2012.

"I think it's disgusting. I think we've already made the right decisions about this," said Ms. Dobson, 34. "I just think it says she's probably not the right person for the cabinet [position] she has. ... Let's move on, and let's deal with issues that are really facing people."

Sandra Demers, 64, was torn. She said she thinks highly of Ms. Ambrose, who is popular in the riding and won 71 per cent of the popular vote in the last election. But Ms. Demers is pro-choice, and didn't support the bill. "I believe it's a woman's choice," Ms. Demers said. "Her calling to reopen it, I don't know what it's going to do."

Ms. Ambrose's provincial counterparts were not eager to wade into the debate. Both Progressive Conservative Premier Alison Redford and Opposition Leader Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Party declined comment through their staff. Both are pro-choice.

Other high-profile cabinet members who voted for the motion include International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and International Trade Minister Ed Fast.

Mr. Fantino's support for the motion drew attention because he oversees Canada's International Development Agency. The government generated controversy in 2010 when it announced CIDA's efforts to promote maternal health would not include funds for abortion services. Canadian NGOs argued against the decision, saying access to safe abortion is crucial in promoting maternal health.

"We've seen no indication from the government that they're willing to reconsider this policy," said Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada. "And I guess the minister's vote doesn't give us any cause for encouragement on that front."