Scheer left Quebecers with distinct impression he was evasive on Canada’s abortion laws

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It is tough to keep anti-choice candidates motivated if the leader refuses to guarantee their right to introduce anti-abortion private members’ bills.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill TImes on October 7, 2019.

OTTAWA—Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer continues to promise he will not revisit Canadian abortion laws. He says he will follow the example of predecessor Stephen Harper.

Some example.

When Harper was prime minister, he would only fund International Planned Parenthood in countries that criminalized abortions except in cases where the mother’s life was at risk.

And with last week’s Conservative announcement of a 25 per cent cut in foreign aid, it would be easy to end all reproductive choice funding in poorer areas of the world under the guise of belt-tightening.

The poorest countries around the globe are precisely the places where the greatest number of women die from the complications of childbirth every single day.

According to the World Health Organization’s 2017 statistics, 810 women around the world died daily from preventable causes related to childbirth. Girls aged 10 to 14 are especially vulnerable, facing the greatest risk of complications and death. Ninety-four per cent of all maternal deaths occurred in lower income countries.

When Harper secured a majority government in 2010, anti-choice Members of Parliament lobbied to stop all funding to International Planned Parenthood. The decision laid waste in the Prime Minister’s Office for almost two years. Harper eventually approved funding only in countries where abortion was illegal.

That funding, managed by international cooperation minister Bev Oda, ultimately rewarded countries that would not allow women to control their own reproduction.

So the claim that Harper did make changes to Canada’s legal framework for abortion is certainly not true on the global scene.

In this election, a new organization called RightNow is working with Conservative candidates with the express purpose of electing enough parliamentarians to win a private members’ vote.

Scheer is beholden to RightNow because he won the Tory leadership on a cliffhanger vote against Maxime Bernier, by pledging to allow private members to pursue a vote in the house.

During the hard-fought campaign, Scheer told RightNow “I’ve always voted in favour of pro-life legislation … I can assure you that I support the right of individual MPs to speak out and bring, introduce matters that are important to them.”

That same organization has a long-term plan to elect 170 Members of Parliament across the country, securing majority control for a specific vote on abortion.

In this election, it’s focusing on 50 ridings primarily around Toronto and Vancouver. The group is not saying which ridings are on their priority list but some candidates’ views are so extreme that the Conservative Party appears to have banished them from public appearances. Heather Leung was still running as Conservative candidate in Burnaby North-Seymour, against Liberal Terry Beech who won narrowly in 2015 and NDP candidate Svend Robinson, who was the first openly gay MP. The Conservative Party dropped her as a candidate on Friday.

Leung, who plans to still run without the Conservative Party banner, opposes same-sex marriage and appears to promote conversion therapy to help people escape what she calls their “perverted homosexual lifestyle” in an undated video referred to in a recent Vancouver Sun column.

Leung opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest and rejects medically assisted dying.

Once Leung’s views were published in British Columbia’s mainstream media, she went underground, deleting her Facebook page and refusing interviews. The Conservative Party also declined to set up any interviews with her.

Other anti-choice Conservative voices are on the record. Nicholas Insley, Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam Conservative candidate and former communications adviser to Michelle Rempel, told The B.C. Catholic newspaper that the strategy was a numbers game. “If you get enough people to vote, if enough people come out to support you. … You either win or you lose. There is no prize for second place. Whoever wins, gets to make the bills.”

Early in the campaign, Scheer featured York Centre candidate Rachel Willson, who was filmed at a 2017 anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill, promising that her top priority was “ending abortion.”

When Carolyn Bennett posted her video during this campaign, Willson claimed to have changed her mind.

Scheer’s refusal to speak frankly about his personal abortion views during the TVA debate is likely a reflection of his own ambivalence.

It is tough to keep anti-choice candidates motivated if the leader refuses to guarantee their right to introduce anti-abortion private members’ bills.

Scheer left Quebecers with the distinct impression that he was evasive and non-committal on the question.

The following day, the leader quickly tried to undo the damage by clearly stating his position.

For Quebecers, it may be too little too late.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.