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Unlike Liberals, Conservatives free to anti-abortion views, Harper says

Prime Minister Stephen Harper participates in a question and answer session with the Greater Kitchener Waterloo and the Cambridge Chambers of Commerce in Kitchener, Ont., on Friday, April 25, 2014.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is publicly contrasting himself with Liberal rival Justin Trudeau on abortion, noting the Conservative Party does not require its candidates or members to be pro-choice.

Mr. Trudeau drew criticism last week for announcing that Canadians who oppose abortion are not welcome as candidates for the Liberal Party. Anybody who runs for the party will be expected to vote the pro-choice position on bills, he has decreed.

Mr. Harper, answering a question on abortion policy near Fredericton, N.B., Thursday, said while his government opposes reopening a national debate on abortion, he doesn't ask MPs or party members to toe a particular line on the matter.

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"Our government is going to do everything we can to keep from reopening that particular debate," Mr. Harper said.

But, he added, "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. Trudeau defended his decision when asked by reporters in Ottawa on Thursday.

"People are welcome to join the Liberal Party regardless of their personal views and express their views, but when it comes to voting on legislation, that is a different thing," Mr. Trudeau said. "Legislation that would limit a woman's right to choose is contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that's why the Liberal Party as the party of the Charter, while welcoming people's views, is imposing that we vote to uphold the Charter."

The Liberal Leader is facing calls to repeal his edict.

The Roman Catholic archbishop of Toronto has asked Mr. Trudeau to reconsider his pro-choice test for candidates, saying party discipline may be necessary but political authority should not extend to matters of conscience and faith.

"It is worth noting that if Pope Francis, as a young man, instead of seeking to serve in the priesthood in Argentina, had moved to Canada and sought to serve in the noble vocation of politics, he would have been ineligible to be a candidate for your party, if your policy were in effect," archbishop Thomas Collins wrote Mr. Trudeau, who was raised Catholic.

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"Among the two million Catholics of my archdiocese, there are members of all political parties, including your own. … It is not right that they be excluded by any party for being faithful to their conscience," archbishop Collins said.

In his letter, the Catholic leader reminded Mr. Trudeau that the patron saint of politicians in the Catholic Church is Thomas More. More was put to death after "he came into conflict with the political authority of his day on a matter of conscience," he wrote.

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