OTTAWA — Andrew Scheer’s careful word choices on the abortion question are leading some in the anti-abortion movement to question the Conservative leader’s commitment to their cause.
“If he is going to coerce backbench MPs to not bring forward pro-life bills, then it is a betrayal,” Jack Fonseca of Campaign Life Coalition told HuffPost Canada Thursday.
Scheer sought the support of anti-abortion activists during his 2017 leadership run, saying he wasn’t afraid of debate and that backbenchers would be free to table bills of interest to themselves and their constituents. He promised his caucus free votes on matters of conscience and courted anti-abortion supporters with his positions.
Those voters helped propel Scheer to the leadership.
Watch: Scheer says Conservative government would not reopen debates on abortion, same-sex marriage
On Thursday, however, Scheer told reporters a Conservative government under his leadership would “oppose” measures to reopen the abortion debate.
“I will not reopen this debate. I will oppose measures or attempts to reopen this debate, and Canadians can have confidence of that,” Scheer said.
Fonseca, who says his group represents 200,000 Canadians, said Scheer “made a statement that he hopes is ambiguous enough that pro-abortion and pro-life people can interpret it as they want.”
Calling the move “obviously deliberate,” the anti-abortion advocate said the Conservative leader’s comments show “some dishonesty” and “a lack of forthrightness.”
“It is obviously so that socially liberal people can read it that he’s going to come down as a hammer on these backbench MPs, and for the people who want to believe that he is still pro-life, they can read into it that he didn’t say he’s going to block backbench MPs explicitly, so then he’s not going to.
“He is trying to send a different message to both sides,” Fonseca said.
Scheer told reporters Thursday that backbenchers will be free to introduce bills on matters they care about. But his spokesman, Brock Harrison, said the “government’s position on such a vote would be to oppose any attempt to reopen the issue.”
Though “matters of conscience will be free votes,” Harrison said, “Mr. Scheer would certainly expect cabinet to support the government position.”
“Nothing has changed for our party. Our party’s position has always been the same,” Scheer said, referring to the decade of Conservative governments under former prime minister Stephen Harper.
“I, as prime minister, will oppose measures that reopen this issue. That is something that Canadians can be sure of,” he said.
“That statement is deeply troubling to me, Fonseca said, “because it suggests that he will bring the hammer down, or may bring the hammer down, on these backbench MPs to take away their democratic rights by threatening them, by intimidating them and coercing them, or shaming them or having others do it for him, if not he himself, then people from his office or other peers. We’ve seen all these things happen under Stephen Harper.”
Under Harper, Tory backbench MPs were technically free to introduce anti-abortion measures and speak out on the issues they cared about, but they were strongly discouraged from doing so.
Harper’s office threatened his MPs — those who brought measures forward and those who voted in favour — with the end of advancement in their careers, Fonseca told HuffPost, information corroborated by former MPs and a PMO staffer.
Cabinet positions, parliamentary secretary posts, committee chairs, “anything that gives them perks or special privileges or salary bumps. That is what Stephen Harper did on Mark Warawa’s sex-selective abortion motion and on Stephen Woodworth’s M-312,” Fonseca said, referring to Woodworth’s motion to study the legal definition of when life begins. (Warawa’s motion, M-408, was deemed non-votable by his peers but was later abandoned because of the backlash.)
“It speaks to the desire for power, that he is willing to be so ambiguous and to send mixed signals and if he is so willing to do that now, it may mean that he is willing to stifle the democratic rights of backbench MPs later on.”
Anti-abortion bills, motions tabled during Harper years
Under Harper, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada says, six anti-abortion bills or motions were tabled in Parliament. Although none became law, Bill C-484, the Unborn Victims of Crime Act — legislation to amend the Criminal Code to open the door to recognizing fetal rights — passed second reading in 2008, with Harper, Scheer, and a majority of the Tory bench voting in favour. It was sent to committee for further study but died a few months later when Parliament was suspended and Canadians sent to the polls.
In 2010, Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge introduced Bill C-510, legislation that made it a criminal offence to coerce or attempt to coerce a pregnant woman into having an abortion. That bill was defeated in the minority parliament, although a majority of the Conservative caucus supported it, with 87 Tories, including Scheer, voting in favour, and 49, including most members of Harper’s cabinet, voting against.
In 2012, when Scheer was Speaker of the House of Commons, Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth introduced a private motion, M-312, to form a special committee to study the rights of a fetus and when life officially begins, with an eye to changing the Criminal Code’s definition of a human being. That motion was also defeated 203-91, with 86 Tories, a slight majority, voting in favour and 74 voting against.
Although Harper may have tried to block measures to reopen the abortion debate, perhaps most famously by preventing Warawa from speaking in the Commons, his government stopped providing aid to groups that fund abortions overseas.
Alissa Golob, co-founder of the anti-abortion group Right Now, said her group believes in incremental change and supporting candidates who can move the needle towards ending abortion. She believes criticizing a party leader who can move the agenda forward, as Fonseca is doing, is counterproductive.
Watch: Conservative party can’t ‘shut out’ anti-abortion supporters: activist
“Well, we don’t know what he means when he says ‘oppose,’” she told HuffPost. “Even though Harper maybe disagreed with some types of legislation, he voted in favour of some pro-life bills, and there were multiple pro-life bills that were put forward under Harper so, as Scheer said at the press conference, it’s a big-tent party and politicians have that right to put forward issues that are important to them.”
Scheer is only one voting member of caucus, she said, and there are 338 MPs. “As long as he upholds that promise [to allow backbenchers to introduce legislation], then we are totally OK with that and we will continue on with our work,” she said.
Right Now is actively working to elect Conservative candidates who support anti-abortion policies. Golob said her non-partisan group is not working with People’s Party of Canada, whose leader, Maxime Bernier, has promised free votes on abortion matters, because Right Now is focused on candidates who are “electable.”
On Thursday, Scheer blamed the Liberals for dredging up the abortion issue and his past comments on same-sex marriage as a distraction from the Grits’ four-year record. Though some of the wounds this week on the abortion issue have been self-inflicted, the Liberals and abortion rights activists have voiced concerns at every election since the Conservative Party of Canada was formed in 2003 that a Tory majority might enact abortion restrictions in Canada. So far, no laws have been passed.