VANCOUVER—Not long after Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer was dogged by the abortion issue during the 2019 federal election, questions are being raised about the support many of his party’s members have received from ardent anti-abortion groups.
In October, Scheer finally told reporters that despite his own personal anti-abortion beliefs, his party was not going to try to reopen the abortion debate.
Two Canadian anti-abortion organizations, both of which aim to influence legislation on abortion, collectively supported more than 60 candidates from parties on the political right, with one group alleging many of these individuals would vote to restrict access to abortion, and for the promotion of conscience rights for doctors.
Now 45 of those candidates — all members of the Conservative Party — are MPs.
And while these groups say the candidates they supported are anti-abortion, several of the now-elected MPs have not explicitly discussed their position, or commented to media on why they received support from anti-abortion groups.
One of these groups is Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), a national organization “working at all levels of government to secure full legal protection for all human beings, from the time of conception to natural death.”
A website run by CLC called voteprolife.ca, has a list of all candidates they determined to be “pro-life” in the 2019 election. There were more than 60, all belonging to right-leaning parties, such as the Conservatives or the PPC, or who ran as Independent.
Of the candidates on the list, 45 — all Conservatives — won their seat.
Candidates were given the “green light” endorsement based on their alleged answers to a questionnaire distributed by CLC, or by a having a “pro-life voting record.”
Seventeen now-elected Conservative MPs are alleged to have said “yes” to the question: “If elected, would you vote in favour of a law to protect all unborn children from the time of conception (fertilization) onward?” or a similarly phrased version of that question.
A smaller number of 11 now-elected Conservative MPs allegedly answered “yes” to the question: “Do you support the conscience rights of health care professionals to refuse to do or refer for medical procedures which they oppose?”
CLC has not responded to multiple requests for comment from the Star Vancouver.
Another anti-abortion group, Right Now, which describes itself as a “political pro-life organization (that) is focused on nominating and electing pro-life politicians, federally and provincially,” also lent its support to federal candidates during the election.
Right Now has kept a list of the candidates it supports under wraps. But it recently published a blog post on the results of the federal election, and mentioned supporting B.C. Conservative candidates Nelly Shin and Tamara Jansen, who are both on the CLC list.
Scott Hayward, co-founder of Right Now, would not say exactly how his organization determined who they would support, only that it was “predicated on whether or not a candidate will vote for pro-life legislation, should they be elected.”
Hayward went on to say that while Scheer established that the Conservatives would not introduce anti-abortion legislation, individual members could still introduce private member’s bills.
“No leader of a political party recognized in the House of Commons can unilaterally disqualify any private member’s legislation; we live in a Westminster parliamentary democracy, not a presidential republic,” said Hayward in an email statement. “Our goal has always been, and remains, to elect a pro-life majority in our federal and provincial legislatures so that pro-life legislation can be passed, regardless of political party affiliation.”
A Conservative Party of Canada spokesperson did not answer repeated questions about the party’s possible links to CLC and Right Now, but instead doubled down on Scheer’s comments.
“Millions of Canadians hold personal beliefs and different positions on this issue. The Conservative Party is no different,” said Cory Hann, director of communications for the Conservative Party of Canada. “The Conservative Party will not reopen this divisive social debate.”
Hann then pointed to several Liberal candidates he said had expressed anti-abortion views, including Filomena Tassi, John McKay and Lawrence MacAulay.
None of these Liberal MPs have been endorsed by the CLC or Right Now.
Additionally, other MPs on the CLC’s list include those who have not been open about their anti-abortion views or answered any of the questions.
One such MP is Nelly Shin, a Conservative newcomer in the riding of Port Moody—Coquitlam, who was also supported by Right Now. Shin did respond to the questionnaire posed by CLC, and it is not clear why the organizations supported her.
In a statement emailed to Star Vancouver after the election, Shin said, “Personally, I am pro-life, but Andrew Scheer has been very clear we are not reopening this debate.”
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Shin went on to say that “groups, individuals, associations, and special interests in Canada have the freedom to organize and support those whom they choose. … To your question on why some organizations have chosen to include me on their support lists, is a question best for those organizations to answer.”
Right Now’s Hayward would not explain why his organization endorsed Shin.
“Like a political party that does not reveal their list of target seats, we do the same,” he said.
The Star Vancouver reached out to several other candidates on CLC’s endorsement list, but did not receive responses.
Under Elections Canada rules, a person, corporation or group must register as a third party if they spend more than $500 during the election or pre-election period, on “regulated activities,” which include activities that “promote or oppose a political actor.”
Right Now appears on the list as registered third party for the 2019 federal election; CLC does not appear on the list.
Pro-choice advocates have expressed concern over these groups and their possible impacts on the ability for Canadians to access abortion.
Joyce Arthur, executive director of Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, said the Conservative party’s claim that they will not reopen the abortion debate is “disingenuous.”
“It’s a political play because they know it’s a divisive topic, and it can hurt election campaigns, so that’s why they take that stance to not reopen the debate,” she said. “But there are a lot of members of the caucus itching to make that stand.”
Arthur said that refusing to reopen the abortion debate does not mean access can’t be eroded in other ways, both at the federal and provincial levels. She said one way this is already happening is through the push for medical professionals to be able to exercise their right to practice their conscience at work — including the ability to refuse to perform abortions or give abortion referrals.
An Ontario court ruled in 2019 that doctors in the province must give patients referrals for medical services that clash with their religious beliefs, but another battle is now underway in Alberta in the form of Bill 207. The private member’s bill dealt with conscience rights protections for health-care workers and was introduced by United Conservative Party MLA Dan Williams of Peace River, Alta. This Thursday, a committee of MLAs tasked with reviewing the bill recommended that it not be moved forward to a vote in Alberta’s legislature.
Michelle Fortin, director of Options for Sexual Health in Vancouver, said that access to abortion, especially in rural areas where medical services are already limited, is already being threatened and conscience rights could further limit access.
“We currently have areas of this province and across the country where access to abortion, especially medical abortion, is challenging,” she said, noting there are still physicians unwilling to prescribe the abortion pill and pharmacies not willing to carry it.
Fortin added that it was important for Conservative MPs to be up front about their views so voters can understand who they are supporting.
“There are folks who voted in the election who aren’t social conservatives, they are fiscal conservatives,” she said. “I don’t think they understand the depth of concern here.”
With files from Nadine Yousif and the Canadian Press