The Conservative caucus was ordered not to talk about the explosive news from the United States that its highest court may be poised to overturn abortion rights, a sign of the Canadian party’s continued struggle to navigate the issue.
A memo leaked to The Globe and Mail shows interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen’s office sent a “note to caucus” on Tuesday telling members of Parliament and senators to keep quiet on the issue.
“Conservatives will not be commenting on draft rulings leaked from the Supreme Court of the United States,” reads the e-mail to caucus.
While the Liberals and NDP require all members of Parliament to follow party policy in favour of abortion access, the Conservatives allow free votes on the issue, calling it a matter of moral conscience. The party’s official policy says if it forms government it will not support any legislation to regulate abortion, but it does not prevent individual Conservatives from putting forward private members bills that would restrict abortion access.
The party policy also condemns sex-selective abortions and says abortion should be “explicitly excluded” from Canada’s international aid programs.
According to the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, since 2008 only Conservative MPs have brought forward motions or private members bills in the House of Commons to limit abortion in Canada. One such bill, C-233, would have restricted sex-selective abortions. It was defeated by the House, but was supported by 81 Conservative MPs in a vote last year.
Ms. Bergen has previously said she is anti-abortion.
She is described as having a “perfect voting record” in the House of Commons on the issue, according the anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition. The group’s website notes that Ms. Bergen voted in favour of Bill C-233.
In a statement sent to The Globe on Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Bergen said it’s “inappropriate” to comment on the leaked U.S. Supreme Court decision because it is still before the courts.
“Access to abortion was not restricted under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the Conservative Party will not introduce legislation or reopen the abortion debate,” Ms. Bergen said in a Tuesday statement, hours after her office told its caucus not to comment.
On Monday, Politico reported that the United States’ highest court appeared poised to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion. The report was based on a draft decision obtained by the news outlet, which said a court majority was inclined to uphold Mississippi’s abortion ban and that there could be five Supreme Court justices voting to overturn Roe v. Wade. An official ruling is expected before the end of June.
In response to the leaked report on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaffirmed his government’s position that the right to choose whether to get an abortion is “a woman’s right alone.” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called access to safe abortion a fundamental right and said New Democrats will work to ensure access to abortion across Canada.
The Conservative Party’s position has left it vulnerable to attacks from the Liberals, who do not allow free votes on abortion rights and, since 2014, have required Liberal MPs to vote pro-choice. The issue dogged the Conservatives under former leaders Erin O’Toole and Andrew Scheer and, even before the bombshell report from the United States, it was influencing the current leadership race.
Campaign Life Coalition tried to get four social conservatives onto the final leadership ballot to try and boost the chances of someone they support winning the leadership. Of the candidates they supported only Ontario MP Leslyn Lewis met the requirements to stay in the race.
On Tuesday, Ms. Lewis’s campaign said she wouldn’t comment on the leaked draft decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. She is against abortion and has already said that if she wins the leadership, she would ban sex-selective abortions, criminalize coerced abortions, increase funding for pregnancy centres and remove abortion funding from Canada’s international aid.
Three of the candidates said they would protect a woman’s right to choose if they become leader: former Quebec premier Jean Charest; Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown; and Ontario MP Scott Aitchison.
Roman Baber, who was an independent MPP in the now dissolved Ontario Legislature, said in a statement that he doesn’t “believe government has a role in how people start or grow their families.” His campaign did not clarify his position on Tuesday.
Ontario MP Pierre Poilievre’s campaign first declined to provide a statement explaining his position on Tuesday. Then late in the day Mr. Poilievre issued a brief comment saying a government led by him “will not introduce or pass any laws restricting abortion.”
The divisions among the leadership candidates represent a continuing “tug of war” among Conservatives over what kind of party they want to be, said Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute. The party is grappling with whether it wants to be a vanguard for social conservatism or appeal to a broader base in the electorate.
The strategy for Conservative leaders has been to try and avoid talking about the issue because of how complex it is and because of the power that the social conservative movement has among the party’s grassroots, said Kathryn Marshall, a lawyer and Conservative activist who is pro-choice.
It will always be a “very hot button issue in the party,” she said.
For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.