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Kelsey Driedger, middle, waves a placard as she participates in the March For Life on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 9, 2013.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Conservative backbenchers are pushing to reopen the abortion debate, despite public assurances by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the issue is settled.

More than 20 Conservative MPs and senators appeared at an anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill on Thursday. Among them was Mark Warawa, the MP whose push for a vote on sex-selective abortion – and the right to simply raise the issue in the House of Commons – led other backbenchers to complain publicly they were being silenced by the Prime Minister's Office. Thursday's rally further exposed a rift within the party, and one of the MPs who spoke, Rob Anders, delivered a warning to the crowd.

"The men behind me have taken strong stands and have made enemies for doing so," he said, urging protesters to vote in riding nomination races to ensure anti-abortion Conservatives remain candidates. "I think the more pro-life MPs, the better," Mr. Anders later told reporters.

Dean Del Mastro, Mr. Harper's parliamentary secretary, urged the crowd to "win hearts and minds" in its fight to restrict access to abortions. "Let's win this. God bless you all," Mr. Del Mastro said.

The abortion issue leaves Mr. Harper with a dilemma. Asked for comment, his office declined to address the MPs' statements but said the issue won't be reopened.

"Canadians are free and welcome to express their beliefs on Parliament Hill. That said, the Prime Minister has been clear that we will not be reopening the debate," Carl Vallée, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office, said in an e-mail.

It was Mr. Warawa who was most warmly greeted, with shouts of "We love you, Mark" as he approached the microphone. "Step by step, we move forward. We stand up for the rights of women and girls. We stand up for the rights of life," Mr. Warawa told the crowd.

He was later permitted – following complaints backbenchers were being muzzled – to make a statement in the House of Commons on sex-selective abortion. "A huge thanks goes to the thousands across Canada standing up against all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls," he said.

At the rally, MP Stella Ambler declared it "a great day for the pro-life movement." MP Jeff Watson told the protesters they "give backbone to people in [Parliament]."

Mr. Anders later told reporters he didn't fear for his own nomination, and wouldn't say which anti-abortion Conservatives may be at risk of losing their nomination. "I just think it's important people who support pro-life [issues] get active and involved," he said, brushing aside questions of whether Mr. Harper's office objects to MPs speaking out. "Listen, nobody has ever told me that I can't say that I'm pro-life," Mr. Anders said.

The MPs in attendance also included Stephen Woodworth, Brad Trost, Rod Bruinooge, Maurice Vellacott, Guy Lauzon, David Anderson, Harold Albrecht, Kyle Seeback, Wladyslaw Lizon, Bev Shipley, Kevin Sorenson, James Lunney, Kelly Block, Lawrence Toet, Royal Galipeau and Leon Benoit, organizers said. Former Liberal MP Pat O'Brien and Harper-appointed Conservative senators Norman Doyle and Tobias Enverga also attended.

Among the crowd was Fred Milnes, 76, a retired United Church pastor from the Ottawa suburb of Kanata. Abortion remains "an issue in Canada, and rather than saying the issue is closed up, we need to open it up," he said.

The crowd drew 10,000 to 12,000 people, RCMP said. That included a much smaller group of pro-choice protesters who left early after the request of police.

In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled banning abortion was unconstitutional. A poll earlier this year found 59 per cent of Canadian respondents saw no point in reopening the debate.

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