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'I had an abortion and I thank God I was able to,' says MLA, pointedly asking Jason Kenney: 'Pro-choice or not?'

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Marie Renaud

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Marie Renaud, the New Democrat MLA for St. Albert, is a brave and forthright woman.

Yesterday she named the elephant in the room about the candidacy of Jason Kenney for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, to wit: Where he stands, today, on the right of women to reproductive choice.

She did it in a way that would take real courage in any part of Alberta, by publicly sharing her own story in a few short words, in the spirit of the age of Twitter.

She started by Tweeting an important question about Kenney that many of us commentators have been too cautious to ask: "Just one question for Mr. Kenney, Pro-choice or not?"

This is an important question for Kenney in particular, because he is on record as being a strong opponent of women's right to access abortion services.

Then Renaud made the statement that demonstrated her courage, made this a news story and explained why she is not just trying to score a cheap political point against an opponent her party would be justified to be concerned about. "I had an abortion and I thank God I was able to," she said in a second Tweet. "Who wants to change that?"

As Kenney's supporters will no doubt shout from the rafters, his unequivocal statements about women's reproductive rights were made a long time ago and he hasn't said much about the divisive subject for ages. Kenney himself has made this point: "In my 20 years in Parliament I haven't given a speech about this, let alone proposed a motion or a bill."

But Kenney raised it, even if he did so a long time ago. He owns it as a result.

Women are entitled to be concerned about what he thinks -- and so are men who are partners and fathers of women who share the conviction that women's right to reproductive freedom must not be infringed by legislation or by stealth. In other words, all voters need to know the answer to Renaud's question.

And Kenney has a responsibility to provide that answer as he campaigns to take over a political party that has generally supported reproductive rights, reluctantly at times and over dissenting voices, but nevertheless reasonably consistently in recent years.

What are Kenney's views? Well, that's the point, we don't really know.

We certainly know what they used to be, however.

As a student at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco, Kenney fought with the school's administration over its policy of permitting students to speak up in favour of abortion rights on campus.

"Conservative students led by Jason Kenney, a philosophy undergraduate and chairman of the student court, had argued that abortion rights lobbying on campus creates 'an educational atmosphere inconsistent with the Catholic faith'," the San Francisco Chronicle reported in May 1990.

According to what appears to be part of a local TV news story from an unidentified station saved on Youtube, the narrator says 300 students were persuaded by Kenney's group to sign a petition demanding the university stop claiming to be a Catholic institution.

A young Kenney is shown in the clip stating that "the pro-choice group which is politically activating (sic) to legalize abortion on demand on this campus, by using campus facilities, is essentially destroying the mission and the purpose of the university."

A university spokesperson, identified as Rev. John Clark, responded: "It is not a conflict with the Catholic faith for people to feely express their opinions and beliefs, even on a Catholic campus."

Archbishop John R. Quinn of the Archdiocese of San Francisco took the young Kenney's efforts seriously enough to write him a personal letter defending the university's commitment to free speech in the context of its Catholic identity. Most Rev. Quinn, now 87, remains Archbishop Emeritus of the archdiocese.

As noted, this was a long time ago.

But while it is true there is little evidence of Kenney subsequently pushing these views, there is equally not much that he has changed them. Indeed, as the CBC's report on Renaud's Tweets pointed out, in 2012 when he was a member of cabinet, Kenney defied the stated wishes of prime minister Stephen Harper and "supported a motion to set up a parliamentary committee to study when life begins." At the time, critics said the motion, which was defeated, was being used as an excuse to reopen the debate on abortion in Canada.

Likewise, Kenney's desire to suppress the free speech rights of people he disagrees with seem not to have changed much -- just ask former British MP George Galloway!

So the question remains: what does Kenney think about this issue now.

He is, after all, ultimately campaigning for a job that would allow him to influence the policies of Alberta's health system in the strongest and most direct ways possible.

Albertans deserve a straight answer.

I shudder to think of the abuse Renaud will get from certain members of the public for raising this question, not to mention the pressure she may come under from her own caucus to keep her lips zipped on this difficult topic.

She has done us all a favour by bluntly asking what many of us were wondering.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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