The abortion issue is still the "stinking albatross" around the neck of the Conservative Party leader, because about 81 per cent of Conservative incumbents running in the federal election have been designated as anti-choice by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. That includes the party leader himself, Erin O'Toole.
As I wrote one year ago, Erin O'Toole is not pro-choice. In 2016, he voted in favour of private member Bill C-225 that would have given legal personhood to fetuses, in the context of pregnant people being attacked. He courted anti-choice groups during his 2020 leadership campaign and owes his victory to them. He promised to allow his MPs to introduce private member bills against abortion and would guarantee a free vote, even by his cabinet -- which means such bills could pass in a Conservative majority government. Now, O'Toole says he would even allow provinces to pass anti-choice restrictions. Finally, O'Toole would cancel foreign aid funding for safe abortion care and advocacy (cloaked by language that he would "mirror previous Conservative foreign aid programs that tied funds to specific, measurable outcomes").
O'Toole has also supported a "conscience rights" law for healthcare workers, but that has been complicated by his recent flip-flop. He clarified that doctors who object to providing care that goes against their personal or religious beliefs -- primarily abortion and medical assistance in dying -- must refer patients appropriately.
But here's the context that the media missed. Objecting doctors are already allowed to refuse care on grounds of personal beliefs. And in every province except Ontario, they are not required to refer to a provider who can deliver that care. That's not enough for the anti-choice movement, however. At the top of their wish list is an amendment to the Criminal Code to give complete immunity to objecting healthcare professionals who also refuse to refer. Criminal punishments would be levied against employers who pressure healthcare professionals to do their jobs. (Just an FYI -- referring patients appropriately is a doctor's basic duty and an everyday practice in all healthcare -- except abortion, medical assistance in dying, and other reproductive healthcare.)
In past provincial versions of similar "conscience rights" bills from Manitoba and Alberta, patients harmed by being refused care or a referral were even prohibited from making complaints to their provincial College for Physicians and Surgeons. Alberta's bill died in 2019, but unfortunately, Manitoba's bill passed in 2017.
Under all such bills, objecting doctors are free to essentially abandon patients by not helping them in any way, not even with information or a referral.
This harsh "conscience rights" scheme is what O'Toole signed onto when he jumped on the anti-choice bandwagon. His flip-flop on a referral requirement does not inspire confidence for anyone. It's a betrayal of the anti-choice movement that got him elected as party leader, but also indicates he had little understanding of anti-choice demands to begin with. It's likely he just didn't care because he was only trolling for their support -- a strategy for votes, nothing more.
Same story on the pro-choice side -- O'Toole's anti-abortion votes and promises indicate that he doesn't understand the essential importance of reproductive rights, and how basic they are to the health and Charter rights of women and transgender and non-binary people.
Fundamentally, if you're willing to restrict abortion access or facilitate such restrictions from others, you cannot possibly be pro-choice.
As Tina Beier said in an April 2021 rabble blog about how pro-choice O'Toole is: "Until he states definitively that no member of the party is allowed to vote for a bill that undermines reproductive justice, we cannot be sure the right to abortion is safe in this country."
We know that O'Toole has no interest in the abortion issue because he and his party have never reached out to the reproductive rights movement to discuss how to improve access (unlike other parties). O'Toole is just mouthing meaningless pro-choice platitudes so he can convince the public to vote for him. It's cynical political manipulation. His personal views on abortion are irrelevant, whatever they are. He's shown a complete lack of integrity on this issue and cannot be trusted.
Please vote accordingly.
Joyce Arthur is the founder and Executive Director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, a national pro-choice group in Canada.
Image: Erin O'Toole/Flickr
Editor's note, Sept. 14, 2021: A previous version of this headline read "Erin O'Toole is still pro-choice." It has been updated to read "Erin O'Toole is not pro-choice."
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