Justin Trudeau is trying to contain the political damage flowing from his decision to force new Liberal MPs to vote for abortion rights, telling "troubled" supporters his party remains open to Canadians with opposing views.
In a letter on Monday, the Liberal Leader acknowledged his policy may have come "as a surprise" when he laid it out to the media two weeks ago. While party officials said Mr. Trudeau always intended to get new MPs to adhere to a pro-choice agenda, the reaction was negative in many quarters. The Liberal Party used to allow free votes on the matter and had a large anti-abortion caucus when it was in power.
The Liberal Party wants to clarify that the policy is designed to ensure that Liberals "vote as one" in the House of Commons, while remaining open to members with a diversity of views on the matter. Party officials feel their policy has been "misreported" and wrongly portrayed as closing the door to all candidates who oppose abortion in the next election.
"To those [that the policy] has troubled: I understand," Mr. Trudeau wrote to party members. "I empathize, and I care deeply that you are working hard to reconcile your beliefs with this Party policy."
"Canadians of all views are welcome within the Liberal Party of Canada. But under my leadership, incoming Liberal MPs will always vote in favour of a woman's fundamental rights," he added.
The NDP accused the Liberal Party of taking a half-hearted stand in favour of abortion rights, as Mr. Trudeau allowed current MPs to continue to vote against abortion rights.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said all of his MPs will continue to support abortion rights, and his party even contemplated bringing a vote on the issue of abortion in the House to highlight current divisions in the Liberal caucus.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, have pointed out their MPs are free to vote according to their conscience on the matter, even though Prime Minister Stephen Harper has frequently stated his government will not reopen the abortion debate.
"Ours is a big party where we understand the Canadian people have different, often conflicting views, on issues like this. Deeply held views. And all such views are welcome in the Conservative Party of Canada," Mr. Harper said last week.
The Roman Catholic archbishop of Toronto has criticized Mr. Trudeau's position, saying political authority should not extend to matters of conscience and faith.
"Among the two million Catholics of my archdiocese, there are members of all political parties, including your own," archbishop Thomas Collins wrote to Mr. Trudeau. "It is not right that they be excluded by any party for being faithful to their conscience."
In his letter to Liberal supporters, Mr. Trudeau made the point that he was raised "very religiously" as a Catholic by his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who regularly went to church.
"But at the same time my father had no problem legalizing divorce, decriminalizing homosexuality and moving in ways that recognized the basic rights of the people," Mr. Trudeau said.
The Supreme Court has not ruled out the possibility of any abortion law in Canada. Still, Liberals argue that access to abortion is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a document that is sacrosanct to Mr. Trudeau and must be upheld by all Liberal MPs.
Still, he is seeking to reassure those who oppose abortion by stating that "under my leadership there will always be a place for you in the Liberal Party of Canada."
Mr. Trudeau was not available for an interview on Monday.
He refused last week to state how his caucus would vote on the proposed NDP motion on abortion rights, stating it was still a "hypothetical question." On Monday, an NDP official acknowledged odds are low the party will bring its motion to a vote in the near term.