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Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole speaks at a press conference in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2021.

David Kawai/The Canadian Press

Like clockwork, the Tory-stalking species known as the stinking albatross returns to Canada each election season after wintering in warmer climes where the culture wars occur year-round.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole was hounded this week by journalists seeking his reaction to a private member’s bill tabled by one of his MPs that would ban sex-selective abortions. It did not go well, to the delight of Liberal strategists and horror of Tory ones who fear Mr. O’Toole may have to campaign with the same smelly bird around his neck that made Andrew Scheer’s 2019 election campaign such a stinker.

You might call it karma. Mr. O’Toole won the Conservative leadership last year by furtively courting supporters of anti-abortion candidates Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis to clinch a third-ballot victory against rival Peter MacKay. Mr. MacKay, who had coined the stinking albatross metaphor during a postelection panel in 2019, refused to pander to social conservatives who sought to hijack the leadership campaign to push their narrow agenda.

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Mr. O’Toole claimed what increasingly looks like a Pyrrhic victory. Unlike Mr. Scheer, Mr. O’Toole has declared that he is pro-choice and would vote against any private member’s bill that limits a woman’s right to choose, but he would not stop members of his caucus from tabling such legislation. And on Monday, he refused to say whether he would require members of his shadow cabinet to vote against Saskatchewan MP Cathay Wagantall’s bill to ban sex-selective abortions, which was tabled last year but was only debated in the House of Commons this week.

Ms. Wagantall’s bill would make it a crime punishable by up to five years in prison for any medical practitioner to perform an abortion “knowing that the abortion is sought solely on the grounds of the child’s genetic sex.” Ms. Wagantall, who supported Ms. Lewis during the Tory leadership race, has called sex-selective abortion “antithetical to our commitment to equality.”

South of the border, where several states have banned sex-selective abortions, abortion-rights activists have long denounced attempts by anti-abortion groups to criminalize the practice as a cynical ploy to reduce access to abortions in any way they can. Anti-choice groups claim to be acting in the name of “gender equality,” though their ultimate goal of banning abortion – and depriving all women of a fundamental right – shows this claim to be disingenuous.

There is not much data regarding sex-selective abortions in Canada, though a 2016 Canadian Medical Association Journal study found a higher prevalence of male births among women who had immigrated from India and who had previously given birth to two girls. Even if anecdotal evidence of sex-selective abortions in other Asian-Canadian communities exists, legislation that aims to criminalize the practice would be difficult to enforce and would only stigmatize minority women.

“While nominally aimed at combating gender and racial discrimination, U.S. bans on sex- and race-selective abortions send the message that women, and especially women of colour, cannot be trusted to make their own medical decisions,” according to the U.S.-based Guttmacher Institute, which conducts research and advocates for reproductive rights globally. “They place women’s motivations for having an abortion under suspicion, thereby opening the door to discrimination toward and racial profiling of women of colour and immigrant women.”

Under Stephen Harper’s leadership, a motion to ban sex-selective abortions proposed by then-Tory MP Mark Warawa was blocked from being tabled in both 2012 and 2013. But Mr. O’Toole made a promise during last year’s leadership race that he would not prevent anti-abortion members of his caucus from tabling private member’s bills on abortion.

Ms. Lewis, who made a ban on sex-selective abortions a key plank of her own leadership campaign and was endorsed by the Campaign Life Coalition, is now running to serve as an MP in an Ontario riding that the Tories have held since 2004. As an accomplished woman of colour, she is likely to figure prominently in the next Tory campaign. But her socially conservative views, like Ms. Wagantall’s private member’s bill, will hurt the Tories in Quebec, where the party needs to pick up seats and where Mr. Scheer met his Waterloo.

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“Women control their own bodies – full stop,” Liberal Economic Development Minister Mélanie Joly tweeted this week as Quebec media reported on Ms. Wagantall’s bill. “When O’Toole was trying to get the votes of anti-abortion activists during his leadership run, he promised them he would let his MPs introduce anti-abortion laws, and now this is exactly what has happened.”

Eventually, a future Conservative leader must understand that playing to the so-cons is a losing strategy, period. It might help you win a leadership race, but it will leave you with a stinking albatross around your neck of which no amount of flowery perfume can disguise the stench.

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