Scheer appears to backtrack on commitment to not allow debate on abortion

OTTAWA — Conservative leadership candidate Peter MacKay once called social-conservative causes a "stinking albatross" thrust onto the election agenda that hung around leader Andrew Scheer's neck and kept the party from winning a majority last fall.

But though MacKay blamed the Liberals for forcing the issue then, a Conservative MP put them back on the agenda just as the deadline arrived Thursday to register in the party's leadership race.

Saskatchewan MP Cathay Wagantall put forward a private member's bill this week that would ban sex-selective abortions, the practice of terminating a pregnancy in order to choose a child's sex.

She said the bill reflects Canada's commitment to gender equality.

"It is true that the majority of Canadians agree with having access to abortions," she said Wednesday. "It is also true that 84 per cent of Canadians stand against sex-selection abortions."

While it's challenging for private member's bills to become law, Wagantall's is likely to receive some public debate.

That could come while Scheer is still leader, or happen under whomever party members choose on June 27 to replace him.

There are expected to be nine candidates who clear the first hurdle to qualify, but the only one for sure on the ballot now is MacKay. He's the first to meet all the requirements to run — $300,000 in fees and 3,000 signatures in total.

The rest have until March 25 to fulfil that obligation; Thursday's deadline only required the first $25,000, 1,000 signatures, a completed application form and a stamp of approval from party brass. 

Either way, it puts the party in the position of having to once again debate the issue publicly, handing fodder to the Tories' rivals to use during the next election, whenever it may be.

And that's despite Scheer's promising that wouldn't happen.

He dodged questions for weeks during the election campaign about his personal views on abortion, and how he'd handle bills like Wagantall's. Finally, on Oct. 3, he reaffirmed his own personal anti-abortion view. But he then qualified it:

"I've also made the commitment that as leader of this party it is my responsibility to ensure that we do not re-open this debate, that we focus on issues that unite our party and unite Canadians. And that's exactly what I'll do and that's why I'll vote against measures that attempt to re-open this debate."

Asked Thursday how that statement squares with Wagantall's bill, a spokesman for Scheer said parliamentarians are free to bring forward business of their own choosing.

"As leader of the Conservatives, Mr. Scheer has always discouraged members of his caucus from introducing items that will open this debate," Simon Jefferies wrote.

Liberal cabinet minister Melanie Joly, who was among those pushing the Tories on the issue during the election, said the bill proves despite what Scheer claims, the Tories do want to reopen the debate.

"That was the case through backbench MPs during the Harper regime and that again is the case today," she said.

The Harper she's referring to is former prime minister Stephen Harper, who, when a motion on sex-selective abortion was advanced by a Conservative MP in 2013, actively sought to keep the issue off the parliamentary calendar.

His decision to do so was linked squarely to his own pledge that a Conservative government wouldn't legislate on abortion, a position entrenched in party policy.

MacKay and fellow leadership candidates Erin O'Toole and Marilyn Gladu all said via spokespeople Thursday they would take the same approach, but acknowledged MPs do have the right to bring forward their own bills.

MacKay's spokesperson said he'd vote against Wagantall's if he were an MP, while Gladu's said she'd wait for the debate. A spokesperson for O'Toole was unable to answer the question.

Jefferies also declined to say how Scheer would vote, though said Scheer finds the practice of sex-selective abortions "abhorrent." 

With Scheer's own views and challenges articulating them perceived to have cost his party support last fall, social issues have played a dominant role in the leadership race early on.

Candidates are being quizzed early and often on how they'd handle similar questions, as well as their personal positions.

Well-organized and well-funded social conservative groups are also organizing on behalf of candidates. 

Three approved candidates — Ontario MP Derek Sloan, Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis and Ontario conservative activist Jim Karahalios have the endorsement of Campaign Life Coalition, as does Richard Decarie, a Quebec-based candidate awaiting formal sign-off of his application.

Decarie has said as prime minister he'd defund abortion services, and both Sloan and Lewis have said in the past they'd support legislation restricting abortion.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2020.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press